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(Professor Shapiro, on leave to the Summer School from Wesleyan University, is an authority on modern French comedy.--Ed.)
Back in the last decades of nineteenth-century France when it was becoming fashionable for dramatists to flee the earthly confines of Naturalism for a more rarefied atmosphere of theatrical expression, the theatres of the so-called "Boulevard" (as opposed to the official theatres on the one hand, and the avant-garde houses on the other) continued to provide the public with a steady diet of light and unpretentious works of conventional stamp, untouched by Symbolism, Decadence, or Wagnerian innovation. In such productions the gamut of quality was understandably a wide one. Many of them, perhaps most, were concocted by second- or third-rate hacks, destined to make less than a ripple on theatrical tides with endless variations on the inevitable flagrant delit, or with revues and vaudevilles based on evanescent issues of the moment: the Franco-Russian Alliance, X-rays, the Parisian Metro, and the like. Others however, were constructed by comic dramatists of genuine wit and ability, humorists like Georges Feydeau, Tristan Bernard and Georges Courteline. If such authors may never be credited with bringing about any major revolutions in the French (or World) theatre, they were, all the same, uncontested experts in the no less noble endeavor of showing their contemporaries the laughable side of a life too often taken too seriously by too many. This is not to say that their works are necessarily trivial. One the contrary; they can, and often do, contain food for reflection, albeit of an easy-going and not-too-taxing variety.
Such is the case with the two farces by Georges Courteline currently being offered by the Actors Playhouse, at the Hotel Bostonian. Article 330, the curtain-raiser, is one of a number of brief but biting anti-legal playlets by Courteline, inspired by much the same distaste for juridical hoopla underlying Daumier's Gens de Justice and countless other examples of esprit gaulois from Mantre Pathelin to the present. La Brige, harassed hero of several Courteline comedies, finds himself at odds with Justice for violation of the article in the Civil Code forbidding indecent exposure. But this is no scabrous little burlesque of the type so common during the period, meant to titillate the lubricious instincts of the week-end visitor to Paris from the other side of the Channel or Rhine. If La Brige reveals a Chaucerian part of his anatomy to 13,687 passers-by, it is through neither perversion nor delight in gratuitous undergraduate mischief. His morals are sound, his logic impeccable, his devotion to Justice--true Justice, that is,--beyond question. For, as he protests in his defense, "Justice and Law are two entirely different things. Law is the caricature, the parody of Justice. They are half-sisters, whose fathers are not the same and who call each other names while honest folk twiddle their thumbs or rack their brains in the vain hope of seeing them reconciled." The truth of his observation is evident in the denouement. But this much I shall let you see for yourselves.
Caught in a different dilemma is the hero of the second play, Boubouroche. "Dilemma" equals "horns" equals that traditional French anathema, cuckoldry. Which is precisely where the hapless Boubouroche finds himself. What is worse, he learns that he has been sporting his shameful appendage for eight whole years, since the very beginning of his liaison with his first and only mistress, Adele. Yet even when he catches her lover in the closet, he is powerless to unwind himself from around her little finger. For, as one of the actors puts it in a formally informal prologue to the double-bill, if Law is justice without temperament, Woman is temperament without justice, Entangled in the web of either, Man is equally helpless.
The "message" of Boubouroche is clear enough, though the play itself, despite its undeniable humor, is really rather frail, as more than one critic observed when it was first produced in 1893. If the action is spread over two acts, it is only because of the change of scene from the cafe where Boubouroche learns of Adele's infidelity to her apartment where he witnesses it. In reality there is only one act's worth of material. And even then, when compared to more substantial one-acters of the repertory--of Feydeau, for example--this comedy tends to fade by comparison, despite it qualities, and become rather a dramatized anecdote. Indeed, Courteline hardly intended it to be much more. Information in the program notes notwithstanding. Boubouroche owes its existence to more than the author's general mistrust of women, being in point of fact the dramatization of a true incident. For years Courteline had been living on the other side of a paper-thin wall from the mistress of poet Catulle Mendes, and for as many years had been silent witness to the infidelities she would blithely commit with a hidden lover the minute Mendes had closed the door behind him. Years later Courteline confessed all this to Mendes, who found it very amusing and insisted that the material was too good to go to waste. Hence a short story by Courteline, later adapted by him into the play.
All kinds of good things must be said for the present production. It is a delight, especially in the pocket-sized theatre of the Hotel Bostonian, decked out in appropriate Gallic style. With Offenbach in the background and designer Robert Wells' curtain a la Toulouse-Lautrec, it out-Montmartres Montmartre, all very pleasantly. The excellent staging of director Alan J. Levitt--who, by the way, is obviously well acquainted with the French touch--overcomes the problem of space, which could be acute if any of his fine company were claustrophobic. And it is a fine company. Robin Ramsay, as La Brige in Article 330, is a lithe-limbed and limber-tongued Australian who gives the part a cockney gusto which it lacks in the original, improving from time to time on Professor Barzun's stiffish translation and livening it up with sparks of "business" of which Courteline would have approved, I am sure. As Andre, the lover in Boubouroche, he is finesse personified, a sort of David Niven almost turned fop, with balletic precision in every mannered gesture. George Bolton comes over well, in Article 330, as the dogmatic embodiment of La Brige's constant antagonist, the Law; and as the Old Gentleman who informs Boubouroche of his long-standing cuckoldry, he is properly precious. Adele, the beautiful deceiver who reduces Boubouroche to grovelling prostration, is played by Penny Hays, mistress of the cultivated pout and expert as the picture of outraged innocence manipulating male gullibility. Jay V. Pati's Boubouroche is a little less convincing, due largely, I think, to his make-up-- a cross between the Great Gildersleeve and a silent movie Simon Legree, with a touch of the young Cesar Romero. He simply looks too worldy-wise and cunning for a man who hadn't had a mistress till he was thirty. Nevertheless, Mr. Pati knows what he is about, and plays the difficult role of cuckold disabused and reabused with an appropriate balance of tantrum and tears. The supporting players acquit themselves in good style, especially Louis Ponderoso as Boubouroche's card-partner, Potasse, and Karen Lee Monko, the barmaid Amedee. Nobody, I am sure, would have preferred Courteline's original Amedee--a waiter--to Miss Monko's bouncy, blonde and bright-eyed ingenue.
In Courteline's time they used to call plays like these "digestive theatre" in the belief that laughter was the stomach's best friend. Suffice it to say that last Tuesday evening everyone in the audience was obviously digesting well. So was I.
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