nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
March 7, 2009
Every family lays claim to its own dysfunctions. The word takes on new meaning in Jeremy Sams's admirable translation of Jean Cocteau's farce, Les Parents Terribles. Even without slamming doors, the excellent script pops, including its English title, Indiscretions—an ironic understatement for a play that counts on manipulation and deceptions for its intrigue.
Set in Paris in the late 1930s, the curtain rises as George carries his wife Yvonne to a plush disheveled bed. He found her collapsed on the bathroom floor in a diabetic coma, the first of many dramatic scenes she contrives. However, it is one of the calmer moments in the play since Yvonne's clear-headed spinster sister, Leo, also present, is now in control. Leo, who is in love with George, issues dictates, but they are as casual and confident as ordering a rum and coke on the beach of San Juan. She has seen this scene before.
As she revives, Yvonne calls for her 22-year-old son, Michael, whom she loves a little too much. Michael, it is discovered, has not been home all night. Yvonne becomes frantic. However, Leo, who lives with them and uses her family inheritance to support them, knows Michael must be with a girl. Hoping that Michael finds a way to cut the apron strings, Leo hatches a plan to gain Yvonne's approval of the new girlfriend, Madeleine. The result forces the benign George to confess to an unlikely affair. Still, Leo's plan prevails, and Yvonne unintentionally co-operates.
This three-act play has a touch of the dark and naughty: incest, infidelity, negligence, and betrayal. But, anything can be made funny, including forcing children to do what parents want them to do through elaborate manipulation, and by keeping them too young to make decisions for themselves. Cocteau's script—as presented by Sams—is marvelous. The actors do a brilliant job of keeping the pace brisk—the keystone of farce. They are somewhat less successful at connecting with one another emotionally. Part of this falls on the shoulders of director Jonathan Silverstein. The characters seem to be talking at rather than responding to one another. The volume, all too frequently, is at full pitch when it should be on the rise. Crossing that fine line is the difference between a smile and a full-throated laugh from the audience. Even so, the production contains many fine moments of physicality, one of the finest being at the close of Act I when Michael twirls Leo in the air in a display of joy.
The actors do more than a commendable job. Gayton Scott captures a smothering, smoldering, manipulative Yvonne. She is the centrifugal force in Indiscretions, sending the others whirling with her character's histrionics and brazen selfishness. Everything revolves around her, and Scott gives the play its edge and its hilarity.
Dan Cordle shrinks into his own body as only a diminished character like George can. It is almost an act of hope that he reaches out for a mistress only to be reminded that, again, he is second best. William Connell gives a literal interpretation to the role of Michael, the perpetual little boy who sulks when he needs something, shows exuberance when he gets what he wants, and frequently needs a hug when things don't go his way. Melissa Miller delivers a mature 25-year-old Madeleine, who is as tidy and contained as Yvonne is slovenly and sexy. The contrast is startling and effective. And then there is Jan Leslie Harding as Leo, who comments on the moral weaknesses of her family. Spurned lover, financial supporter, and schemer, Leo offers order among all the chaos. She keeps her character well out of Yvonne's grasp, but is always ready to step in when George or Michael need a hand.
Michael V. Moore has designed eye-catching sets. The bed, with its rich fabrics dominating the stage in Acts I and III is the perfect metaphor for everything that's going on in this farce. Brent Barkhaus designed a stunning peignoir set for Yvonne that coordinates beautifully with the sumptuous duvet and throw pillows. Artists Lucrecia Briceno and Elizabeth Rhodes designed lighting and sound, respectively.