An enjoyable French farce, “The Heir Apparent,” is playing at the International City Theatre in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.
Talented playwright David Ives has translated and adapted (he calls it a “translaptation”) “Le Legataire Universel,” originally written in the 17th century by one of France’s leading comic dramatists, Jean-Francoise Regnard. The play remains in period and, true to Regnard’s unique style, Ives’ dialogue is set in rhyming couplets, both graceful and hilarious, rendered in modern idiom and liberally sprinkled with nuggets of contemporary slang.
This is the tale of Eraste, a youngblood much in love with his fiancée, the beautiful Isabella. Her mother, Madame Argante, insists that Isabella marry money and property. She’s prepared to let her daughter marry Eraste — but only if he inherits the vast wealth of his sickly, miserly Uncle Geronte, who’s knocking at death’s door, so all seems well.
Fond of his hoard, Geronte refuses notice of far-flung relatives begging mention in his will. He plans giving Eraste, his only close relation, but a paltry sum. Aware of this, Eraste entreats his servant and friend, the wily Crispin, to aid in gaining his uncle’s boodle without losing the old man’s favor. Crispin agrees if, after inheriting, Eraste presents him with money enough to marry Geronte’s attractive housekeeper, Lisette, who’s also in on the plot. Mix-ups merrily pile on mishaps, more than ever when the elderly Geronte considers marrying the delectable Isabella.
All evening long the audience erupted in chortles, guffaws and belly-laughs as Crispin concocted one hilariously convoluted scheme after another, matching wits with Geronte and the diminutive lawyer, Scruple.
There are no small parts in this play. Without exception the cast enlivens their characters with wit and charm.
Wallace Angus Bruce, as Eraste, is the whirlwind driving the plot. From beginning to end he provides a touchstone with comic reality. Matthew Henerson has a wonderfully well-modulated voice. As Uncle Geronte he’s wildly crotchety, producing laughter on sight. Adam J. Smith as Crispin is the droll epitome of “the scheming servant,” a character much beloved in French farce. The indirect interplay between Crispin and Geronte allows both to give standout performances.
The female characters make the most of being objects of passionate affections. They draw the eye and steer the action even when not driving it. Rebecca Spencer as Madame Argante turns in a delicious performance as the quintessentially formidable matron. Susanne Jolie Narbonne as Isabella is a bewitching presence who turned in a flawless performance. Paige Lindsey White, the understudy, stepped in to make Lisette maturely beguiling.
Appearing in the second act, Adam von Almen as Scruple the lawyer maintains an air of dignity amid the comical frustration and craziness whirling about him. Mr. Almen’s ability to make himself shorter by two feet helps him deliver a superbly comical performance. It is a testament both to his acting ability and the genius of the costumers.
Being French and a farce, “The Heir Apparent” is deeply ingrained with bawdy humor, primarily scatological rather than sexual in nature; reminiscent of Mozart’s humor as portrayed in the classic film, “Amadeus.” Today, France is given over to secularism and far-left politics, yet, especially in the period in which this play is set, it is well to recall that France was intrinsically Catholic, “the eldest daughter of the Church.” Indeed, the play’s happy and essential morality could easily be read as a Christian parable or allegory. Had G.K. Chesterton been born French he might well have written this play or one like it.
“The Heir Apparent” is just mature enough in style, subject, and humor for a parent to be moderately wary, though older teens are likely to be entertained. In less skillful hands this type of humor would be simply crass and rather boring. The wit and artful poetry both in Regnard’s original conception and in Ives’s rewording elevates what would otherwise be coarse humor to a truly amusing, even intellectual, level.
Amid the clowning the characters are ardent yet never prurient, self-centered, yet never malign. Their attitude is somewhat cynical, yet never suffers a loss of innocence. Eraste and Crispin are resolute in love. While no one in the play can be seen through rose-colored glasses there is not one character, thanks as much to the excellent cast as well as the script, which ever ceases to be sympathetic, lovable and heartily amusing.
“The Heir Apparent” plays at the International City Theater in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 E Seaside Way in Long Beach, through July 12th. Ticket information can be obtained at (562) 436-4610 or at [email protected].