Here’s what happened when 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) discovered 17th century playwright Pierre Corneille (1606 to 1684). Credited with writing the first important French tragedy, “Le Cid,” the poet-playwright Corneille was destined to be replaced as the premiere French dramatist by Racine and was virtually eclipsed a few years later by Moliere. It is a shame more of his work isn’t produced. It is our good fortune, however, to know that at least one of Corneille’s plays, out of a considerable canon of comedies and tragedies, has been deemed worthy of resurrection and adaptation by no less a master of words than Kushner.
Kushner has breathed new life into one of Corneille’s late comedies, “The Illusion” (“L’Illusion Comique”). Although his adaptation has been popping up at various regional theaters for the past 22 years, it is now included in the Signature Theater season devoted to plays by Kushner. The season began with “Angels in America” presenting all three parts of the acclaimed socio-political epic. Because Kushner’s epic drama, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” was a joint production between the Signature Theater, the Public Theater, and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, it was presented at the Public Theater where it just concluded a month-long run.
At the Signature Theater, “The Illusion” is a notable departure from Kushner’s dramatic activism. Nevertheless, this new incarnation is still is notable for containing Kushner’s own philosophical and sociological musings on the various ways people love and lament. It happily also reveals the substance of Corneille’s invention and intention.
There is much to commend about this magical comedy. The magic in the play is quite literal and is approached with a gentle and even melancholy touch by director Michael Mayer. Mayer (“Spring Awakening”) has approached the play with an eye for keeping the mysterious/mystical decor appearing and disappearing to keep the audience intrigued by the darkening and diverging components of the play.
If one may assume that Kushner’s intent was to free the original from the formalities of its neo-classical prose and pretensions, he has succeeded. The staging seems like the adaptation itself operating in two worlds, one saucily French, the other sparklingly American.
A magician’s powers are sought by a father to answer questions about his long estranged son. The 17th century fairytale-like fable must have been a puzzler and a dazzler in its time, but it more than expends its own mystique in this major re-shaping and re-telling. Pridamant (David Margulies), a wealthy lawyer of Avignon, is facing old age tormented by the sad reality that he banished his only son and heir from his home 15 years ago for a minor offense. He is desperate to reunite with his wild and incorrigible son (Finn Wittrock), who has not been heard of since. The old man goes to the cave of a magician, Alcandre (Lois Smith), to seek out her help. (In most productions, Alcandre is played by a man.)
This puts a wonderful spin on the character, as Smith creates a uniquely wry but also world-weary sorceress who seems particularly fond of toying with the old man. Smith’s last memorable performance at the Signature was in Horton Foote’s “A Trip to Bountiful.” She can now chalk up Alcandre as another one of her unforgettable portraits.
Her way of helping him find out what happened to the lost boy leads Pridamant down what seem to him like blind alleys. But the alleys that are conjured up are actually a trio of strange eye-opening illusions and romantic triangles, including some exciting sword fights. Two adversaries, played with brio and buffoonery by Sean Dugan and Peter Bartlett, vie for the love of three young maidens (all played delectably by the lovely Amanda Quaid). Merritt Wever is excellent as the cleverly coquetish handmaiden/confidante who offers some perceptive and by no means selfless observations.
If Pridamant isn’t necessarily happy with the means by which his questions are answered or with the answers themselves, the result is both touching and funny and affords him a chance to see that there are other worlds as real as his own. It is for us to see how much more there is to love and to discover in the world when we forgo what has been fixed and made rigid by society.
Variously known as Calisto, Clindor, and Theogenes, Wittrock adapts his good looks and assured countenance to all three characters while ever remaining the estranged son. To explain this further would destroy the lovely twist in the plot. The generally comically inclined Bartlett earns our sympathy if not our empathy as the cowardly and dim-witted rival Matamore. Theater veteran Margulies gives another of his amusingly sturdy performances as Pridamant, particularly as he learns of his son’s fate, one that proves quite a shocker to his conservative nature.
A weirdly wondrous world has been conjured by set designer Christine Jones and atmospherically embraced by Kevin Adams’s lighting. There is also humor and invention in Henry Stram’s performance as Alcandre’s deaf and voiceless servant, particularly as he underscores some of the action by playing the piano. All the strange and wondrous sounds in the play echo eerily thanks to sound designer Bray Poor. The 17th century haute couture by costume designer Susan Hilferty casts its own spell on the eyes.
If you are willing to allow your eyes and ears to deceive you, then you can trust that “The Illusion” will be a worthwhile reality. ***
“The Illusion,” through Sunday, July 17, Signature Theater, Peter Norton Space 555 West 42nd Street. $75. 212-244-PLAY (7529).