During the 250 or so years since French novelist/playwright Marivaux wrote most of his 35 plays, only a handful have been produced with any regularity. Some 15 years ago Patrice Chereau directed a revival of Marivaux’s “La Dispute,” launching a renaissance of interest in him in France that’s now spreading to America’s resident theaters — with the help of several new translations by American-born, French-educated, London-based playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker.
The Hartford Stage has chosen “False Admissions,” Wertenbaker’s English version of “Les fausses Confidences,” generally considered the finest of Marivaux’s plays. Like his overshadowing predecessor Moliere, Marivaux was influenced by commedia dell’arte, and “Les fausses Confidences” was first performed by the Comedie-Italienne in Paris in 1737. The play apparently didn’t receive its New York premiere until 1952, in a Broadway season by France’s Renaud-Barrault Company. And it wasn’t seen in English in New York until 1971, when the Equity Library Theater produced it as “False Confessions” in a translation by W.S. Merwin.
One of Marivaux’s love comedies, it’s gossamer delicate; speak severely to it and it would shrivel and die. Ideally it needs to be performed by long-established acting ensembles steeped in high-comedy style. Hartford Stage’s cast lacks those virtues, and it’s almost never able to bring to the play the resonance needed to flesh out what’s going on beneath its elegantly shiny surface.
Nevertheless, it does have a physically beautiful, tenderly charming performance by Olivia Birkelund as romantic heroine Araminte, quivering with anticipatory delight at the thought of an attractive young man going to agonizing lengths to woo her in secret. The plot is typical commedia; one of its servant characters is even a Harlequin. It brings to mind the romantic mix-ups and deceits of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” as half the characters play matchmakers and the other half are manipulated by them.
As is typical of marivaudage (an ambivalent word the playwright’s name and questionable style gave to the French language), there’s much clever repartee amid the bittersweet handling of traditional themes of love and deception. Wertenbaker’s vigorous translation is elegant while rightly avoiding being too precious.
The play’s and the production’s final scene, awash in comic tears as hero and heroine finally embrace, is the most successful, acting and direction elsewhere seldom being sufficiently stylish or imaginative. There’s also a sad lack of sensuality, surely an essential Marivaux ingredient. Part of the problem is that Jack Hannibal as Dorante is too wimpy to strike any sparks off Birkelund’s so desirable Araminte.
Among the other performances, the two with the most dimensions are those of Oni Faida Lampley as Araminte’s maid and Benjamin Stewart, ripely florid as Dorante’s bachelor/lawyer uncle. The least acceptable are those of Evan Pappas and Mary Louise Wilson. Pappas, so good in “Promises, Promises” at the Goodspeed Opera House, gives much the same performance here; unfortunately, what’s right for Neil Simon is wrong for Marivaux. And surely director Mark Lamos and Wilson should never have taken the obvious way out and so crudely limned Araminte’s mother as a cliched mother-in-law joke.
Marivaux’s plays are often referred to as the theatrical equivalent of Watteau paintings, so it’s not surprising that costume designer Suzanne Palmer Dougan has taken her cue from that artist, wide-brimmed straw hats and all. Visually the production is quite lovely, if a mite precious in the way set designer Michael Yeargan has strewn his basic set with peony petals, backing it with drapery and ormolu-decorated screens.
But the cold fact is that comparatively sturdy Moliere is tough enough for resident theaters; evanescent Marivaux is tougher yet. It’s not for nothing that his plays are considered to be traps for the unwary.