The Rehearsal

at the Charles Playhouse

THIS WEEK'S SNOWSTORM could have easily been scripted by French playwright Jean Anouilh. Sunday night, Act I, everything transformed--fences, archways, and street signs--into a campus-wide version of Zhivago's ice palace. But, over the next two days, the scene changed as the snow melted into sluggish tears, the tears turning into rivers of slush and mud. By mid-week and the final curtain, all had frozen. Ice. The trees--their branches torn and crippled and frozen--stood out in painful ugliness against a threatening sky.

Anouilh's The Rehearsal opens amid a flurry of epigrams and bon mots, ends on a wintry note of bitter despair. Doing so, it settled into a little too much mawkishness for may taste. The direction, though, by Michael Murray, was superb. The first act and a half--free of the play's pathos--is a streamlined French farce, wittily delivered and swiftly played.

The Rehearsal takes place at a chateau in modern France, whose owner is staging an amateur production of an eighteenth century melodrama, Marivaux's The Double Inconstancy. The Count insists that his fellow players--including his wife, his mistress, his wife's lover--wear their period costumes during the three-day rehearsal period so that they can grow into their roles. The result is something like an interminable cast party hosted by Stanislavsky.

The Count, a master of type-casting, assigns roles to his guests that exactly parallel their actual intrigues. In no time at all, life is imitating art and vice versa. The Countess, in her Louis Quatorze gown, puffs Turkish cigarettes and wears oversize sunglasses. The mistress alternates between her catty conspiracies and her overplayed acting--in the process, making great fun out of lines like, "La! There's village drollery for you!"

The Count's living theatre works just fine until the inevitable ingenue (Ellen Endicott-Jones) upsets all the artificial relationships. Anouilh never has time to exploit The Rehearsal's central conceit for he soon finds himself struggling to protect his ingenue from the cynics that surround her. Hero, the Count's alcoholic friend, takes over and the play sloshes forward lugubriously. Humbert Allen Astredo delineates his drunkenness with sensitivity, but there's just so much Anouilh packed into his long monologues, that he can't help but become tiresome.

The real problem with Anouilh is that--for all his painful honesty--he's really more naive than his modern audience. Most of The Rehearsal's third act is a long debate between innocence and corruption. Too long. I knew corruption would win, it always does. I think I even wanted it to win. After all we've been through during the past year, it's pretty difficult for me to hold any truck with feigned innocence, especially when it's held on to so stubbornly. Anouilh is best when he's simply being stylishly bitchy. There are probably enough of such moments in The Rehearsal to warrant a trip into Boston.

Anouilh comes from a generation that still finds cynicism painful. He doesn't understand how we've all learned to aestheticize our minds. Anouilh might have once seen a February in Cambridge, but I doubt that he could have ever accepted living through one.