Fort Worth — The snooty French, it would seem, like a fart joke as much as the next guy—er, garçon.
Judging from Stage West’s bouncing and jolly The Heir Apparent, in fact, the 18th-century French audience might have enjoyed an onstage toot more than any people…ever. The miserly old gentleman Geronte (Jim Covault), in bad odor with his family for refusing to write a will, is the fragrant focus of attention in this plot as he wheezes from every bodily orifice—but even the “ugly old clock” on his marble mantel has a tendency to chime the hour with a whoopee-cushion end note. (We’re guessing sound designer Rich Frohlich had plenty of fun with this production.)
Written by Jean François Regnard, a popular successor to Molière, Heir is the latest among a select group of classic French comedies playwright David Ives (Venus in Fur) has adapted for the modern stage—Molière’s The School for Lies and Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear among them. Ives continues the old tradition by having actors declaim in classic 18th-century rhyming couplets. (Regnard’s play, called Le Légetaire universel, premiered in 1708.) But he keeps humor high by loading the lines with modern American lingo—pronto rhymes with Tonto, diarrhea with Crimea, tots with gigawatts—and wordplay. The sassy servant Lisette (Taylor Whitworth) lists Geronte’s many complaints—he’s “sclerotic, neurotic, thrombotic”—and calls herself “the high-colonic mistress of all France.”
As for the plot, it’s a round-up of the usual suspects who collect around a rich man’s deathbed: Eraste (Jesse Elgene), the debt-ridden young gent whose hopes ride on inheriting (“a million, a million!”) from his ailing uncle; servants Lisette and Crispin (Jeff Wittekiend), in cahoots with Eraste and hoping for their fair share; the bubbling-over beauty Isabelle (Lucy Given), Eraste’s love, and her dragon-lady mother, Madame Argante (Judy Keith). Not to mention an American cousin and a “pork princess” niece who may have claims on the money.
Man and woman, all eyes are fixed on Geronte’s chained money box, strangely set out in the parlor with nary a security guard in sight. How much is in there, they wonder…and how much is mine? Add a “teensy, weensy” lawyer named Scruple (Randy Pearlman, hilariously on his knees for the entire show like a Munchkin Land refugee), stir, and laissez les bon temps rouler.
Heir Apparent is a collaboration with Theatre TCU, and marks a welcome and lively Stage West debut for director and TCU prof Krista Scott, whose work at Circle Theatre has included some notable hits (Exit, Pursued by a Bear and Ives’ Venus in Fur among them). The mixed cast of professionals and student actors blend well, and (just a guess) may have bonded in the stage “combat” of trying to get all these sing-song, complicated rhymes into their heads—kudos to voice and dialect coach Joe Alberti.
Jim Covault, that old pro, wafts through the scenes in a filthy dressing gown and a cap that rides so low on his face that he seems to be fumbling, half-blind and distracted, through what’s left of poor Geronte’s life. Covault also designed the gilded and elaborately French set, with almost as many doors as there are actors; smart set décor and props are from Lynn Lovett, with clue-providing spotlights from Michael O’Brien.
Though the servants note that Geronte’s bowels “are the only thing that moves” about him, he’s still in there pitching—thinking about making his own new heir, and keeping a firm grip on the key to the money box, which he wears around his neck. (Like Chekhov’s gun on the wall, the key-on-a-rope will become a Weekend at Bernie’s-style plot point.) Covault’s poker face and grand delivery are just the thing.
Whitworth and Wittekiend are quick-witted and snarky as the servants—and each one is given a moment to step up and talk directly to the audience. “You two look confused,” grins Crispin as he leans down to a couple in the front row and offers to re-cap the plot. Elgene and Given’s young lovers make a funny pair of opportunists: they’re in love, but know they’ll need money to make a go of it. And the couple of moments when they suddenly remember they’re tres, tres French—going all Pepe Le Peu on each other—are a stitch.
Filling the stage with her wide-panniered skirts (clever costumes are by Aaron Patrick DeClerk of Trinity Shakes and more), Keith manages to be money-obsessed and still a bit lovable as the take-charge maman. And Pearlman commands the stage—or at least, the lower half—in several moments as the apoplectic advocate Scruple, who might have more of a “fun” side than we think.
Playwright Ives complained that Regnard’s original script left off too abruptly, leaving lots of loose ends untied. Not surprisingly, he felt free to write his own ending, with some nicely hippy-dippy modern “morals” and a presto-change-o of characters that let even the crustiest show signs of a human heart. It’s funny, and in keeping with the light-hearted spirit of the show.
Molière it’s not—but it’s easy to see why Regnard’s play was a popular hit back in the day. The Heir Apparent is an easy ride, without the high-octane wit of the best French playwrights, perhaps, but with plenty of life and laughs to send us happily on our way.