In recent years, there has been nothing that I have enjoyed more in the theater than one of the excellent new translations of French farce by David Ives at the Shakespeare Theatre. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen three of the four shows he wrote produced there, and they’ve all been delights. So when it was announced that he was translating a new play for Michael Kahn’s final season, the Boy and I were excited. And then I started to hear about this particular show, and I was a little more trepidatious.
First off, it’s not French, and it’s not one play. It’s a series of short plays by a German writer, Carl Sternheim. It was also written a lot later than the French plays in question were – most of those were written in the 17th and early 18th century, whereas this was actually written in the early 20th century, so the style of comedy is entirely different. Yes, there are traces of farce-ness, because that’s what Ives does very well. But a lot of it feels more like the early version of some strange and slightly dark sitcom that happens to be staged instead of on television.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – let me tell you a little about the show. It is three short plays which are all connected together by ties of family. The first part takes place in Boston in the 1950s, the second is set on Wall Street in the 1980s, and the third part is set in the ominously named “Tomorrow” – as in, the very near future. The set design on all three sections is impressive and beautiful. The costuming is top-notch per usual. And the acting is really impressive. This particular show is carried by 6 actors playing all the roles across the three plays, and seeing them shape-shift from show to show is fascinating.
I think as an actor, this show must be really exciting. Each part has a chance to play three very different roles (well…mostly, but you’d have to see the show to see what I mean here). The playing with various kinds of costumes and wigs and types of makeup is probably a kick, and having to change your whole persona three different times – a real challenge. And yet – because each of these characters are sort of related from part-to-part, it’s also the kind of thing where the actors need to carry portions of their performance through on a thread of connectivity. They all do this splendidly.
And now for the part that I feel bad about: and that’s that I’m not sure I got it. The first two sections of the play were very funny, and I felt like they translated decently well. The third act is the one that apparently Ives had the most trouble directly translating, and so it has only the loosest relation to what happened in the original. And that third section is what gets me – I feel like if it weren’t quite so strange, and so off, perhaps I would have enjoyed the whole thing more? And maybe it’s that one section that colored the whole experience for me. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it (or that you wouldn’t) – the first two sections are quite funny and again – it’s easy to see the Ives farcical influence. But once we move into the land of “Tomorrow,” I’m lost.
I salute Ives though – it was a valiant effort to take on this task. But I think perhaps the ease with which he was able to modernize the stories from parts 1 and 2 – “The Panties” and “The Partner” – made it seem like there must be an easy way to update the third part of the show, and while he obviously did something, it was for me the weakest part. But again – this is just my personal opinion. Perhaps others will go into this show and think that “The Profit” is the strongest section (or even an equally strong section). But I think it’s fair to go in with your eyes open to the fact that this is a strange new-old show, and that it may not be for everyone.
Details: The Panties, the Partner, and the Profit by Carl Sternheim, adapted by David Ives. At the Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004. Through January 6, 2019.