Sometimes you come home from a play wishing you could curl up with the script. It happens with a movie, too, as when you want to go back to the novel it adapted. But with "The School for Lies," the sumptuous, smart, physically playful and ultimately farcical comedy at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, it's not Moliere's original "The Misanthrope" (1666) I want to read so much as David Ives' adaptation (2011).
Not that Moliere's original isn't supple and witty, especially in a masterful and faithful rhymed verse translation like Richard Wilbur's. But Ives' own wildly inventive rhymed verse delights in self-display that is both a virtue and ... well, not exactly a flaw, but something else.
In short, Mr. Ives' text is so flashy, so rich in quotes and allusions to everything from the Greek tragedies to Shakespeare, Keats and recent pop culture, and the PICT actors deliver it with such wit-cracking, ear-popping speed, that I actually wanted to slow it down to get all the jokes.
No, not really: who ever (well, hardly ever) wants a play to go slower? I enjoy being forced to keep up. But this acoustic and intellectual workout doubtless accounts for "School for Lies" getting fewer laughs than it deserves, especially in Act 1: We're holding on for dear life, afraid to miss any verbal firecracker or innuendo. Hence the desire to curl up later with the text, even though it lacks the ebullience that the stage provides.
The larger fact is that Mr. Ives has pretty fully remade "Misanthrope" throughout. He's left it in a sort of jokey approximation of the 17th century (plus cell phones), but although the verse is full of modern (post-modern?) jokes, Mr. Ives more fully rearranges characters and situations into something more frankly comic. Losing the play's melancholy heart, he replaces it with extravagant curlicues of character and expression -- and lots of theater jokes.
One result is a happy ending, whereas in Moliere, the title character, the famous Alceste who rails against the insincerity that passes for social manners, can't make the required compromises. He's in a great French tradition that later gave us Cyrano, whose deformity was physical -- Alceste's deformity is egotistical idealism. He demands that any friend or lover share his disgust, and so, ultimately, cuts himself off from social intercourse. He's a kind of melancholy/tragic hero. But Mr. Ives' Alceste (jokingly named Frank) is something else -- although similarly articulate, in spades.
Is this a flaw or virtue, a loss or a gain? Yes and no.
Enough about what "School for Lies" is not. What it is, is confident, slick and (especially in Act 2) lots of fun. Director Andrew Paul has never seemed more self-assured, and he has a crackerjack cast, led by Leo Marks as Frank (in a couple of ugly black wigs, such as a society-spurning misanthrope might wear) and Nike Doukas as his object of desire, Celimene, the delicious queen bee of her Parisian salon.
Mr. Marks is the master of Mr. Ives' language, his articulate body curling with disdain, ever on the move, prowling and assaulting, although his staccato, lip curling delivery sometimes makes the complex text difficult to understand. Ms. Doukas is brilliant in keeping all her professed lovers on tenterhooks.
Mr. Ives' reconstruction is nowhere more evident than in Joel Ripka's Philinte and Robin Abramson's Eliante, Moliere's nice, moderate couple, who here become much more extreme and funny. Ms. Abramson gets the best laughs in Act 1 and keeps it going in Act 2, and Mr. Ripka channels Mr. Ives' best invention, which of course I can't give away, but note the aristocratic lisp he affects.
The boobies are played by Martin Giles, James Fitzgerald, Ben Blazer and Helena Ruoti, a pretty formidable acting quartet, far boobier than in Moliere. The bawdry that issues from Ms. Ruoti's censorious Tourette's-infected rant is topped by the more subtle erotic puns in her later dialogue. Matt DeCaro contributes a pair of roles that Mr. Ives wittily links together.
Gianni Downs provides a handsome set on which these self-obsessed figures preen and pivot, featuring a towering, curving staircase to die for; Joan Markert clothes them in the sumptuousness their high station requires; and Andrew Ostrowski's lights provide sparkle.
Indeed, the whole production shimmies with assurance. All it needs is an audience that measures up.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at email@example.com.