That cleverest of playwrights, David Ives, is not satisfied with crafting the notable likes of Venus in Fur and All in the Timing. In recent years, Ives also has been fiddling around like a verbal virtuoso with French comedies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Translating and adapting these verse comedies for modern-day audiences, Ives has produced The Liar and The Heir Apparent, among his other “translaptations” that have proved popular among companies that present classical shows.
Red Bull Theater, which has become a significant player in revitalizing vintage works since its founding in 2003, currently offers the local premiere of Ives’ The Metromaniacs. Ives draws this comedy from La Metromanie, a 1738 opus by one Alexis Piron, whose title roughly translates as The Poetry Craze.
According to Ives’ program notes, this play was inspired partly by a real-life incident involving Voltaire and a mysterious poetess from the boondocks whose verse had entranced Parisian literary circles. No sooner did an admiring Voltaire publicly offer to marry this literary lady than it was revealed that she was in reality a he, who faked the identity of the poetess and her verses to take a catfish-style revenge on tastemakers who did not savor his actual writing.
Several false identities are assumed among the seven characters in The Metromaniacs, which scampers away for two acts in the ballroom of a house in Paris owned by Francalou (Adam LeFevre), a wealthy gent whose hobby is writing plays. His latest effort transpires in a forest, so the scenery for a woodsy glade, all two-dimensional trees and flowering shrubbery, has been set up incongruously amid the elegant chandeliers and boiseries of the ballroom. James Noone designs every artificial inch of it quite prettily.
Two young fellows, a poet (Christian Conn) and one who’s decidedly not (Noah Averbach-Katz), are in love with Francalou’s simpering daughter Lucille (Amelia Pedlow), who is mad for versifying. Meanwhile, Lucille’s maid Lisette (Dina Thomas) pretends to be her mistress for reasons that escape me other than nearly all maids in 18th-century French comedies are expected to do that. A rogue of a valet (Adam Green) and a rich, grumpy uncle (Peter Kybart) also figure into a plot so inconsequential there’s no point in detailing its farcical complications.
What gives this extremely silly business its babbling charm is Ives’ inventive wordplay as he rolls out a seemingly endless supply of rhymes for the nonstop couplets that propel everything along in iambic pentameter rhythms: Masculine rhymes, feminine rhymes, dactylic rhymes, anachronistic rhymes, silly rhymes, smart rhymes, whatever, it’s all in the rhyming, which tickles up considerable laughter.
Of course, some people in our increasingly visual age may not be receptive to hearing such ceaseless verbiage, although the rising generation, their ears tuned up to hip-hop, might well get a kick from the couplets.
This production is directed by Michael Kahn, a veteran shaper of many a classical work. His staging here could be more lightly handled. The actors, sporting a rainbow variety of period costumes by Murell Horton, deliver broad performances that look forced. Between the propulsive couplets, the mostly unvaried rhythm of the brisk pacing, and the superficial acting, the show eventually becomes relentless.
The production is presented in the close environs of The Duke on 42nd Street, where Red Bull housed its hit revival of The Government Inspector. Perhaps this flexible space could have been configured to provide a few more feet of distance between the audience and the false proscenium of the show’s physical setting. A comedy as quick, lively and verbal as The Metromaniacs needs extra room to breathe.
The Metromaniacs opened April 22, 2018, at The Duke on 42nd Street and runs through May 26. Tickets and information: redbulltheater.com