What begins with the surge and unity of purpose of an uplifting SST levels off quickly for a more modest if colorful vantage of deceitfulness in the La Jolla Playhouse’s world premiere (through August 19) of The Deception, a new adaptation of Marivaux’s La Fausse Suivante. Based on one of the 18th century French dramatist’s lesser-known works, Deception has no shortage of modern relevance – with potential for referencing everything from minor self-deception to cover-ups on a global scale. Here we keep it personal: sexual confusion and duplicitous relationships designed for profit or self-protection.
A woman (Merritt Janson), whose name we never learn, was affianced to Lelio (Casey Greig), a charismatic dowry-hound. To determine firsthand his worthiness for the healthy annual stipend her treasury would provide, she poses as a Chevalier to befriend him man to man. She seeks the help of a servant, Trivelin (J.C. Cutler), who is so refreshingly open about his reliance on guile that he quickly sees the woman within the man’s clothing, and rises to the call in hopes of their removal. Chevalier learns that Lelio is previously engaged to a Countess (Emily Gunyou Harris), whose estate would pay only half the allowance hers promises. Lelio woefully confides to his new best friend that a prenup means he stands to lose the handsome signing bonus he received from the Countess, plus pay a devastating penalty if he reneges on his vows to bachelorette number one. The Chevalier offers to win the Countess’s heart away from Lelio so that she will break the contract and free him to reap elsewhere.
Line for line, the new adaptation by director Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp is lively and rich. It is played out against a beautiful glass house set (with its inherent warning about people who throw shit), with floor to ceiling panes, each “soaped” in a pastoral palette of spring blues, greens and yellows. There is no further set dressing or props. The weight to keep things interesting and informing falls upon the actors and the text and over the course of the evening the grinding out of all the subterfuge gets a little wearying.
J.C. Cutler kicks things off as Trivelin with a presence that promises a production of among the year's finest. There’s the kind of command and attraction one expects to find along the Thames (or, perhaps the Seine). Joined by Janson, believably boyish early on but sensuously womanly after shedding her menswear, the excitement is maintained. Sonya Berlovitz’s costumes – all creams, whites, blacks, and grays to set the players off against the field – adds to the anticipation. The angled hem of Janson's frock suggests her double-sidedness.
As the Countess, the one person whose heart is steadfastly in the right place, Halaas is asked to perform with some bipolar comedic business, which she is up to but which removes our link with the romantic and, like pulling the tablecloth out from under the silver service, leaves us staring at harder surfaces. Janson ably picks up the role as emotional touchstone, despite being saddled with active deception of the innocent Countess.
For contemporary audiences, all the attraction between men and women – whether extending past the drawers or just based on appearances – becomes the most interesting part of the escapade. True feelings between people, with the sexual component made mysterious, is a dimension that Serrand and his actors delicately tease out of the script. Though Greig is not interesting enough to keep the story as engaging as Cutler’s too-short appearances portend, and the clowning of Nathan Keepers’ Arlequino, while perhaps true to the spirit of Marivaux, fails to take flight, this is a beautiful production that raises timeless questions.
Tourettic bursts of profanity from male characters, which may unnerve some, are welcome blasts against classic theater predictability and an enlivening part of the show.
There is a great sense of company here, manifest in the a cappella benedictory that brings the production in for a smooth landing at curtain call.
CREDITS Adapted by Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand from La Fausse Suivante by Marivaux, directed by Dominique Serrand PRODUCTION David Coggins, set; Sonya Berlovitz, costumes; Marcus Dilliard, lights; Zachary Humes, sound; Mark Adam Rampmeyer, hair/wigs; Benjamin McGovern/Jenifer Morrow, stage management WITH Dorian Christian Baucum, J.C. Cutler, Michelle Diaz, Liz Elkins, Casey Greig, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Larry Herron, Merritt Janson, Nathan Keepers, Brandon D. Taylor La Jolla Playhouse / Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre / July 17-August 19, 2007 World Premiere