Well-Turned Phrase Lives in Marivaux Play

Timberlake Wertenbaker's new translation of the comedy sparkles at Hartford Stage

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

FALSE ADMISSIONS - Play by Marivaux. Translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Directed by Mark Lamos. At the Hartford Stage, Hartford, Conn., through March 19.

IS there any joy equal to discovering a great writer? Or better yet, rediscovering a forgotten one? Imagine that there was a playwright who could construct delicately balanced comedy plots, bring to life multifaceted characters, and use language with real wit and grace.

Meet Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, better known as just Marivaux, a genius who lived a half-century after Moliere and wrote one enchanting comedy after another, from 1722 to 1746.

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Hartford Stage Company is producing his ``False Admissions'' in a translation by the gifted American-born, London-based playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, who is now represented in New York with ``Three Birds Alighting on a Field.'' Wertenbaker's translation is so skillful that it actually manages to appear effortless.

Those who struggled through French drama in the original language may remember Marivaux's felicitous phrasing and shrewd eye for the games men and women play. But it is one thing to briefly study a long-dead playwright and quite another to freshly observe his work onstage. Two centuries before Freud, Marivaux documented the inability of the two sexes to communicate when physical attraction is involved. According to a program note by a French scholar, Marivaux recognized and identified ``approach and withdrawal, avowal and retraction, discovery and concealment, misunderstanding and revelation.'' He also neatly grasped the deceitful nature of the coquette - a woman fully prepared to torture those who love her before admitting for one second that she might be smitten herself.

In a telephone interview from London, Wertenbaker (who spent a good part of her childhood in France) explained that ``False Admissions'' (``Les Fausses Confidences'' in French) was the first of three that she has translated. Several years ago, Mike Alfreds, the artistic director of an off-West End theater called Shared Experience, commissioned this and another Marivaux comedy.

``Marivaux's language is very elegant and quite cerebral,'' she says. ``He was trained in 18th-century salons, but you get a kind of male intelligence with female concerns. Quite unique.''

``He wrote many of his early plays in Italy, which show a strong commedia dell'arte influence. But the ones he wrote after he returned to France, like ``False Admissions,'' are all wonderful and wholly original, though he uses the harlequin figure, the Arlecchino that the Italians invented,'' Wertenbaker says. She points out that most translations of 18th-century plays utilize expressions like ``Zounds'' and ``Egad'' and ``By Jove'' to correspond with the way English was spoken at that time. ``But the French language has changed much less through the ages. Marivaux was very modern, and should be translated that way.''

The plot of ``False Admissions'' places Dorante, the young nephew of the heroine's attorney, in her service through the machinations of her steward, Dubois. Naturally, all this takes place on the eve of what appears to be a likely marriage with a rich count, whom the heroine - the beautiful Araminte, widow of a banker - initially intends to sue. Our boy Dorante cherishes every moment with his new employer and doesn't realize that, while gazing at her, her maid has been gazing at him.

Such misunderstandings are the classic stuff of French comedy, but it is in the detail with which Marivaux spins variations on the genre that he shows us the complexity of the human heart.

The secret to playing this sort of comedy lies in having the actors believe in what they're saying, yet allowing the audience to know the often contradictory emotions that lie behind their words. Artistic director Mark Lamos understands this implicitly, though not all his actors are equally at ease with 18th-century manners and posture.

Lamos is particularly blessed with two actors playing the important character parts: Benjamin Stewart brings a kind of Benjamin Franklin-type sagacity to the juicy role of the uncle, while the always delightful Mary Louise Wilson almost steals the show as Araminte's social-climbing mother.

Subtle shadings

The young principals are well-chosen. They play with conviction and charm, though sometimes they miss the subtle shadings within scenes that require delicate transitions. Olivia Birkelund gives a Grace Kelly spin to Araminte; she knows what she wants and is clever enough to recognize that, to get it, she must at times appear undecided. The actress is poised and appealing. Evan Pappas shapes the all-important role of the steward Dubois to his own mischievous nature.

Any production of this play probably stands or falls on the skill of the actor playing Dorante. If too sappy, he's a drip; if too clever, he'll appear conceited. The skill with which Jack Hannibal manages this tightrope is the real reason for this production's success. With the energy and musicality of a dancer, he soars through the play's eloquent language with ease and an exceptional sense of timing. He falls in love with love before our eyes, making his every absurd step totally credible. Ben Bode's Arlequin is an original interpretation: at times funny, other times coy and self-indulgent.

Casting choices

Lamos should be commended for creating important opportunities for minority actors. In this production, he does well by his choice for Araminte's maid (played by Ona Faida Lampley) but has harmed his good intentions by miscasting the role of the count.

A well-chosen black actor could have added another dimension to this somewhat shallow role, that of a powerful social figure of substance and wealth. It is only one of two small missteps - the other being the use of piano music when harpsichord would have been more appropriate - in an otherwise fine production of great sweetness and romance. (It's especially disarming to enter the theater and find the stage floor strewn with rose petals.)

Those wishing to enjoy the production have only a week left to do so; the production closes March 19.

Marivaux next reappears in New York at the CSC Repertory in a revival of ``The Triumph of Love,'' translated by James Magruder and directed by Michael Mayer, which opens April 6. Evidently, word about this delightful playwright is spreading.

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