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'The Heir Apparent' - Grasping for a Fortune (and Laughs)

Suzanne Bertish, Paxton Whitehead, and David Pittu in The Heir Apparent

(©Richard Termine)

A trio of connivers work feverishly to make sure a dying man's wealth falls to them in David Ives' The Heir Apparent, which opened last night at Classic Stage Company in the East Village. LIke the playwright's The School for Lies, which debuted at the theater three years ago, "Heir" is Ives' update/riff on a French classic, in this instance a little known work by Jean-Francois Regnard. But unlike "Lies," which had delicate kind of lunacy to it, this new piece, directed by John Rando, strains, sometimes to the point of breaking, in its quest for theatergoers' laughs.

The plotters in "Heir" include Eraste (David Quay), a young man hoping to inherit a vast fortune from his ailing uncle Geronte (Paxton Whitehead), along with the old man's two servants, Lisette (Claire Karpen) and Crispin (Carson Elrod). Eraste needs Geronte's money in order to wed the beauteous young woman he loves, Isabelle (Amelia Pedlow). Lisette and Cripsin are eager to help Eraste because, should he come into the fortune, they will be set for life too. Unfortunately, the deluded Geronte also has designs on Isabelle, and all her mother Madame Argonte (Suzanne Bertish) is simply willing to marry her off to whichever man has the money.

How Crispin leads Lisette and Eraste in a series of ruses to dupe the old man into leaving his fortune to his nephew constitutes the bulk of the play. They must first get him to change his mind about a couple of distant relatives to whom Geronte has been planning to bequeath his wealth. Then, they need to deal with Scruple (David Pittu), a diminutive lawyer who arrives to take down Geronte's last will and testament.

As with "Lies," Ives has written in rhyming couplets, that brim with contemporary slang and a plethora of scatological references, and the playwright's sense of wordplay seems to know no bounds. With "Heir," though, he seems to have been tripped up by the difference in tone between Moliere's work ("Lies" is based on The Misnathrope) and Regnard's. The societal satire that's part of the former work transferred beautifully in Ives' script, and helped give his play a balance between cartoonish farce and comedy of manners. With Regnard's play, though, Ives only has broad comedy to update and tinker with, and sadly, it means that "Heir" bounds from one setup to the next without any sort of respite from the zaniness.

The result is a play that can elicit some rollicking laughs, but it also proves wearying as the show barrels through its two-hour running time. Among the show's chief highlights are Pittu's turn as the prickly and determinably precise Scruple, Bertish's superlatively dry rendering of the avaricious mother, and Whitehead's ill-spirited Geronte.

The main weight of the show falls on Elrod, who's playing Crispin, and here the talented and indefatigable actor works to mixed effect. He is an utter delight when he assumes Geronte's identity, for instance. But in some of the character's other disguises, notably when Crispin pretends to be Geronte's distant relative from America, his antic behavior proves quickly tiresome.

There's little doubt that the show looks like a million bucks. John Lee Beatty indicates the opulence of Geronte's home and his splendid array of possessions with grace; David C. Woolard's period costumes are a colorful, comic lot (particularly a trio of gowns that are needed by the schemers); and lighting designer Japhy Weideman gets to play some fun tricks with one of Ives' running gags about French films.

---- Andy Propst

The Heir Apparent plays at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: ClassicStage.org.