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By Denis Diderot
Adapted by Andrei Belgrader & Shelley Berc
Directed by Andrei Belgrader
American Repertory Theater
In the 36-volume Encyclopedie for which he is best known, Denis Diderot defined satire as a work "dictated by the spirit of invective." The American Repertory Theatre's staging of Diderot's Rameau's Nephew may have other elements besides that of invective, but the cynicism and nastiness with which the title character skewers 18th-Century French society provide most of this play's merriment. Rameau's Nephew skillfully combines old-fashioned satire with modern expletives, and while this production is saddled by the occasional annoying technical gag, as a game of wicked dialogue the results are delicious.
Rameau's Nephew is ostensibly the record of a conversation between two characters, I (Jeremy Geidt) and He (Tony Shalhoub), at the Cafe de la Regence in Paris. I is a philosopher who spends hours "observing all, talking to none," at his favorite haunts. He is the outcast nephew of the celebrated French composer Jean Philippe Rameau. Their verbal duel can either be interpreted as a disagreement of lifestyles between two people or as a vocalized internal struggle within an ambiguous individual.
In any event, the argument is essentially over money. Can one live, as the philosopher does, in a state of perpetual disdain towards the material world? Or is it, as Rameau's nephew insists, "so hard to be poor when all around you are rich?" As the more conventional character, Geidt's arguments are invariably less interesting. To his credit, however, Geidt manages to hold the audience's attention while maintaining the same position on stage and without changing his facial expression for several minutes at a time.
Diderot's spiked dialogue helps, of course, but it is largely Geidt's dry voice and haughty demeanor which keep us interested. He's a John Houseman of the 18th Century, able to deflate the ego of Rameau's nephew without having to look him in the face. The philosopher also has a knack for preempting our own views of Rameau's nephew, "I believe you have brought the art of debasement to new heights," he declares, "I think I liked you better as a musician than as a moralist."
As Rameau's nephew, the material failure who wears his cynicism on his ragged sleeve, Tony Shalhoub is a masterpiece of spite. He rants and raves against the evils of his society but can't escape his hunger for those rich possessions which he claims to disdain. Shalhoub knows how to milk a good joke, but he occasionally drifts into tedium by repeating the same gag or mannerism.
On the other hand, his interaction with the audience is marvelous; Shalhoub clutches one audience member's legs and tries desperately to unload a bust of his uncle which bursts into song whenever it emerges from his pocket. Several of Shalhoub's extended monologues (one consists entirely of coughing) are excellent, and despite his external unpleasantness, the nephew's position is sympathetic. After all, most people have tried at some time or another to pretend that money doesn't matter, only to discover its vital importance when confronted with the need for sustenance and clothing.
Rameau's nephew really wants to have his cake and spit on it too.
Director Andrei Belgrader wisely adopts a minimalist approach towards this play, recognizing that its success depends on acting and the use of dialogue rather than any inspirational staging. The set is appropriately barren, and the difference of agreement between the two characters is highlighted with a minimum of movement. One clever touch is Belgrader's decision to spice the 18th Century satire with modern references and expletives; they serve both to shock the audience into attention and remind us that the script has meaning for contemporary society. Another is Shalhoub's coughing jag, with its reference to Topol's song "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof.
Unfortunately, moments of annoyance abound in Rameau's Nephew, and most of them arise because of the American Repertory Theatre's obsessive need to demonstrate its technical prowess. But such moments cannot detract from the skillfull direction, inspired acting, and sharp dialogue which characterize Rameau's Nephew. It's an engaging bit of satire, one which decisively proves the wisdom of Bob Dylan's old adage that "Money doesn't talk, it swears."
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