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THEATER REVIEW

Love and the damage done

Betrayal and revenge ring true centuries later in Marivaux's 'Deception' at the La Jolla Playhouse.

July 27, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA -- In the theatrical world of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, love isn't so much a battlefield as a chessboard. The objective is still to win -- money, sex, psychological control -- but victory comes through strategic cleverness and manipulation rather than brute force.

There's a subtlety of style here that is very French, possibly too much so for American theatergoers not easily seduced by austerity and abstraction. The Minneapolis-based Theatre de la Jeune Lune's exquisitely stark staging of "The Deception" at La Jolla Playhouse, however, reveals that elegant words and fancy decorum can harbor enough emotional violence to satisfy even the most voracious of appetites. The production might not rescue Marivaux from the shadows of Molière, born more than a half century earlier, but it showcases the blend of sophistication and savagery that makes him unique even today.

Stand warned, however: This reworking of his 1724 comedy, "La Fausse Suivante" ("The False Servant"), doesn't pulse with a suspenseful drumbeat. The intricate plot quietly unfolds like a game of cat and mouse among not only the characters but also between the playwright and his audience. Marivaux is determined to stay one step ahead of us. That he succeeds as well as he does will thrill some, annoy others and probably bore the rest.

C'est la vie. YouTube-era popularity clearly isn't in the cards for Marivaux, but any writer who can inspire theater artists nearly three centuries later to such heights of expressive discipline and technical brilliance deserves our patience and respect.

On a stage of plexiglass panels vibrantly painted in blues, yellows and greens, "The Deception" lets loose its manifold trickery. A Parisian gentlewoman (Merritt Janson) has camouflaged herself as a man to find out the truth of her future husband's heart. Beyond the fact that she doesn't know him well, the Chevalier, as she is now called, has reason to suspect Lelio's character: He's a greedy, womanizing creep.

Committed already to the Countess (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Lelio (Casey Greig) intends to fleece her out of millions while marrying his even richer lady friend from Paris, who he figures will provide him with good sport for a week or two in the sack while bankrolling him for life.

He's so morally corrupt, he's even prepared to accept the help of his new buddy, the Chevalier, to pull off his plan, not realizing that the Chevalier has cunning plans of his own.

Amour has rarely been exposed as this mercenary. But it's not just aristocratic men who fall short of the romantic ideal. The Countess, drowning in love for the disguised Chevalier, twists and turns with capricious irrationality, as though passion gives her the right to be exasperatingly fickle and self-absorbed.

And the servants -- commedia dell'arte figures drawn with more sophisticated French contours -- are out to exploit the situation for as many bottles of vino as it's worth. Trivelin (J.C. Cutler), the Chevalier's jaundiced new servant, isn't fooled by his master's drag and threatens to foil the plan against Lelio unless he/she keeps reaching into those plentiful pockets. Arlequino (Nathan Keepers), Lelio's servant, may be far more bumbling, but he's just as much of a craven opportunist.

This adaptation by Steven Epp and Jeune Lune artistic director Dominique Serrand nicely streamlines the drama, though there's still a need for a bit of fine-tuning. The hairpin turns in character motivations require more verbal exactitude than this spry, cheerfully profane handling always bestows.

Of course, the bar is set extraordinarily high by Marivaux, one of those French writers who are so adept in their own tongue that it's impossible to do them full justice in ours (though recent translations by James Magruder and Stephen Wadsworth have made impressive headway). The term "Marivaudage," coined in honor of the playwright's refined dialogue, reflects the way sentimental intrigue deepens line by felicitous line.

But if the language sometimes seems fuzzy in this English version, Serrand's staging has a vitality and tonal smoothness that provide more than adequate compensation. The fleet members of his troupe, one of the most respected and versatile ensembles in the country, share a physical and stylistic vocabulary that allow for a rare sense of unison.

And what a pleasure to be in the presence of actors who feel no compulsion to make us fall in love with them. They're too caught up in the machinations of Marivaux's world to care about anything but their next move. Clarity of purpose, athletic grace and unsentimental fearlessness are the qualities on display, which are exactly what's needed to reanimate the work of a playwright whose unflinching insights are communicated through the elaborate structure of his plot rather than through a character's psychological subtext.

Janson, whose androgynous charm brought to mind Hilary Swank, maneuvers with the stealth of an undercover detective of the human spirit. What she uncovers in Greig's Lelio is not simply a brazen cad but a strain of selfishness that may in fact be more universal than anyone would like to believe.

It's not a pretty picture, but Serrand's scenic painting is virtually impossible to look away from.

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'The Deception'

Where: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesday, 8 Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Aug. 19

Price: $28 to $60

Contact: (858) 550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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