The Rehearsal,” Jean Anouilh’s modern classic of absolute, unwavering and triumphant cynicism, is a very dark dance indeed at the Roundabout Theater Co. Despite the glittering silver and gold gowns, and a bright white set that almost hurts the eyes, there’s nothing less than evil lurking beneath every sequin, smile and bon mot. As the comedy ever so gradually owns up to its own dim view of humanity, so too does Nicholas Martin’s first-rate production, its company of actors slowing peeling away the characters’ masks of urbane sophistication to reveal the monsters underneath.
Broadway’s second revival this week of a play from postwar Europe (“The Rehearsal” opened in Paris in 1950, Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” in London, 1947), Martin’s “Rehearsal” succeeds precisely where Scott Elliott’s “Laughter” fails: The director of the Roundabout production trusts his material — trusts his playwright — and forces nothing. The descent into the play’s black soul is as sure as it is unstoppable.
Set in a French chateau in 1950, “Rehearsal,” like “Present Laughter,” focuses on a close-knit (or at least closely bound) group of sophisticates whose personalities are reflected through the artifice of theater. The Count de Febroques (David Threlfall) has gathered his small coterie in preparation for a lavish party that will include, as per the Count’s custom, an elaborate, if amateur, production of a play. The Count, a fun-loving 40-year-old whose steadfast refusal to grow up borders on the decadent, has outfitted his wife and friends in 18th-century dress (Michael Krass’ stunning costumes) to rehearse Marivaux’s 1723 French classic “The Double Inconstancy.”
The Count, who’s charming, however devilish, has cast all his actors in roles that mirror their own personalities, so that his wife, the Countess (Frances Conroy) plays a scheming grade dame, his beautiful though heartless lover, Hortensia (Kathryn Meisle, very funny playing a bad actress) plays type, and the lovely, unaffected governess of his children portrays an ingenue noted for just such attributes. It is through these machinations that the Count, as the protagonist of the play-within-the-play, can truthfully express his love for the young girl.
A love, not incidentally, that threatens to obliterate the delicate balance of mendacity with which this clique functions. While the Count and Countess remain intellectual “best friends,” each indulging in open-secret affairs (he with Hortensia, she with the handsome though foolishly valiant young stud Villebosse, nicely played by Frederick Weller), their finely constructed marital arrangement has never before been violated by the outside interference of true love.
The Countess, who loves the Count more than she pretends, isn’t the only one who fears her husband’s newfound emotional rejuvenation. Hortensia, who doesn’t love the Count but is loath to be abandoned by him, forms an uneasy alliance with the Countess (“If I were his mistress, I certainly wouldn’t allow myself to be treated like this,” the wife says to the lover). Soon they’re joined by Hero (Roger Rees), the Count’s childhood friend, a drunken rogue whose unmitigated cynicism can’t tolerate his old friend’s happiness. And Hero has a secret, long-ago score to settle with the Count, a score that provides the play its brutal, tragic ending.
During its first act, Anouilh’s play, in this very witty translation by Jeremy Sams, has the shimmer of French farce and the breezy mood of a play by, well, Noel Coward. The tone is best exemplified by Conroy’s Countess, all surface charm and nonchalant worldliness. She doesn’t mind her husband’s flings as long as they’re with someone as nonthreatening as the vain Hortensia, but faced with the possibility of actually losing her husband — especially to someone as unsullied as the governess, Lucile (Anna Gunn) — she turns desperate and vicious. Silly schemes meant to embarrass the girl into resigning give way to something dreadful, a plot in which the drunken, disillusioned Hero is all too willing to participate.
Martin draws thrilling performances from his actors, particularly Rees as the once-loving friend broken by loss and alcohol, a nihilist left only with a fondness for “breaking things.” Threlfall and Conroy are terrific as the Count and Countess, each revealing the emotional layers (he the wonder of first, however late, love; she the desperation of losing it) beneath the surface sophistication. Meisle is the embodiment of poisonous vanity (and very, very funny to boot), and Weller gives dimension to the impetuous hunk. Only newcomer Gunn, as the unspoiled governess, seems a bit out of her league, rising to the occasional moment but displaying little of the innocent allure that has the male characters entranced and females jealous.
Martin, who lends the production the same panache he gave the Diana Vreeland bio-play “Full Gallop,” carefully guides the play’s shifting moods — notice how the brightly lit chateau gives way to the darkness of the governess’s bedroom, where evil trumps innocence. The director gets able support from a technical team that includes set designer Robert Brill, costumer Krass and lighting designer Kenneth Posner.
While rehearsing the play-within-the-play, a character describes the farce as “the elegant anatomy of a crime.” That’s as good a description of this production as any.