IN THE FIRST breath of the play the stained glass windows light up, eerie and striking, their patterns pop, untrite and yet faithful to the spirit of the cathedral and religious scenes that one has come to expect from the medium. The stage is floor level, jutting on three sides into the audience and consisting of szthe skeleton outline of a large ancient building, the Priory Hall. Inside is a table set for dinner. This arrangement provides half the distance of the conventional stage and half the closeness of modern experimental theater, which is appropriate for a play that is largely static and meant to be intellectually rather than viscerally involving.
You can't really hear the actors sometimes as they roam around freely in this open space, and you can't see them sometimes because your view is blocked by the pillars of the bare structure of the building, but all this interference just helps to reinforce the audience's feeling of being eavesdroppers on the intense interaction on stage.
The play that actually unfolds in this sensitive and warm atmosphere is meagre. Anouilh's complicated story line contains some sweeping ideological comment, some incisive portrayal of human trauma, and some biting humor, but it is basically disorganized and incoherent.
The first act shows an aristocratic bunch of Frenchmen who deliberately set out to humiliate an ex-classmate of lowly birth, Bitos, who has managed to rise to a high and powerful post in the Judiciary in post-Liberation France. This is accomplished by having all the dinner party guests dress up as characters from the French Revolution. Bitos is cast as Robespierre and subjected to much abuse from the other upper class guests.
It turns out that Bitos is not an unlikely man for the part of Robespierre since he once ordered his closest friend killed because this friend had collaborated with the Germans during the war ten years ago. Anouilh rails at this bit of petty bureaucratic brutality be linking this act of Bitos' to the tortuous reasoning by which Robespierre condemned some of his closest associates to the guillotine.
In setting up this parallel between Robespierre and Bitos, Anouilh seems to be warning against the re-emergence of the kind of intolerent righteousness that characterizes tyranny on the Stalinist model.
Anouilh has clearly touched on some important social problems, but he deals with them so superficially that it becomes hard to credit his sincerity. In Act Two the play shifts to Robespierre himself in the French Revolution and Anouilh goes on to caricature the man asserting at one point that Robespierre killed "because he couldn't succeed in growing up." The dangers that come along with the second generation of revolutionary leaders, who are generally more intolerant and uncompromising than the original leaders, are too serious to allow one to be happy at seeing them parodied in Anouilh's manner.
Structurally too the play is unbalanced since Act Two nearly completely submerges the Bitos character and, when we finally return to Bitos this play succumbs to one of the more ludicrous forced endings of all time.
Josh Rubins' direction is unobtrusive and skilful but it lacks the aggressive and stimulating thrust of the recent great Harvard student directors. Nevertheless Rubins handles mass scenes very well and moves his actors around in graceful and complex patterns.
Pope Brock is very good as an effete young noble, and Vince Canzoneri's Maxime is a perfect picture of a vengeful, slightly insane and decaying aristocrat. Timothy Hall, except for an implausible tendency to twitch uncontrollably, plays Bitos with compassion and sense.
The play is false in its intellectual posturing, but this inadequacy is redeemed by the Loeb's suberbly-competent, mildly-inspiring production, gorgeous sets and costumes and fine acting and all.