Even our English cousins may not be cynical or ruthless enough to do stylized French plays. They only chopped off one head in their Revolution. The French removed thousands. English novelists tend to treat their betters with wry amusement. French writers invariably portray theirs as swine. This occurred to me as my mind wandered from Nicholas Martin's production of "The Rehearsal," Jean Anouilh's play about French aristocrats in 1950 rehearsing an 18th-century comedy of manners for a weekend party. At its best, the transatlantic cast which includes (together again!) Roger Rees and David Threlfall of "Nicholas Nickleby," and some fine young Americans brings the play toward English drawing room comedy. But the actors cannot make the leap into the rarefied and sinister world of decadent French aristocrats. The level of decadence can be gauged when the countess joins forces with her husband's mistress against an innocent lower-class girl with whom her husband is infatuated. The mistress says of the man they share: "I've never really forgiven you for being his best friend while he was my lover."
They are so threatened by the girl that the countess persuades her husband's boyhood friend to seduce the girl in her room in an otherwise empty wing of their chateau. This is pretty ugly, and, on the basis of this production, I'm afraid we Anglo-Saxons just aren't up to it. Rees and Threlfall are strong recalling their cruel boyhood. Neither, however, seems suave or mature enough to suggest their childhood was all that long ago. Kathryn Meisle is wonderfully vivacious as the mistress. As the countess, Frances Conroy projects the tart humor sharply, but her bitterness is too obvious she is, after all, kin to the heartless women in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," and Conroy lacks the requisite impassivity or evil. Anna Gunn is not artless or innocent enough as their victim. Nicholas Kepros plays the one decent aristocrat capably. Frederick Weller has an engaging lusty energy that seems very American. Robert Brill's set has the proper coldness and grandeur. Michael Krass' costumes, especially for the two cunning women, lack the proper austerity and taste. They would work better in a '20s Ben Travers farce. Come to think of it, so would everything else.
Love in a mist of subtle debauchery, a young girl betrayed and a revenge cruelly achieved, these may not be the common stuff of comedy, but they bitterly serve in Jean Anouilh's "The Rehearsal," revived in fair-to-middling fashion last night by the Roundabout Theater on its larger stage at the Criterion Center.
Innocence and its corruption, artlessness in the midst of artifice - these were prime concerns of Anouilh, the popular but serious French dramatist of the mid-century who himself seemed to veer confusingly between style and content.
Of course, the style of this temporarily underrated playwright was as French as its content, and Anouilh traced his dramatic antecedents back to the classic Marivaux and even Moliere.
In "The Rehearsal" - one of his plays Anouilh dubbed "brilliant," as opposed to his other four play categories, "rose," "black," "costume," and "grating" - the debt to Marivaux is overt. Set in an aristocrat's chateau in 1950, a group fo rich French blue-bloods are rehearsing a performance of Marivaux's "The Double Inconstancy" for a society ball.
The plot of this 18th-century Marivaux play within the play, where a charming pair of young peasants are whisked off into the insincerity of a fashionable court, is echoed hollowly in Anouilh's own modern theme, when the feckless owner of the castle, disregarding his wife and his mistress, falls in love with an innocent penniless governess brought in for the amateur theatricals.
The new translation by Jeremy Sams - replacing the old one by Kitty Black and Pamela Hansford Johnson - seems a tone or two darker than before, but Nicholas Martin's staging lacks something in finesse and crispness.
It is not much helped by Richard Brill's dull setting - surely one would not find a cheapo photo reproduction of Fragonard in a real-life chateau - and 18th-century costumes by Michael Krass, which too busily make a comment.
The performances vary. The best comes from Roger Rees as the self-hating, alcohol-sodden Hero (ironically that's his name, not his self-styled occupation of "breaking things") who in a powerful, savage portrayal of villainous friendship actually effaces my memory of the great Alan Badel in this same role.
David Threlfall - with an accent most oddly chosen for an aristocrat - does commandingly well as the Count who unavailingly falls in love (what a romantic Anouilh was under that carapace of cynicism) for his first and only time, while Anna Gunn is all couth sweetness as the almost savvy-enough object of those affections or affectations.
The rest, apart for a sterling Nicholas Kepros as the young girl's ambiguously motivated guardian, are just leaning to the wrong side of satisfactory, with a haughty Frances Conroy as the Countess determined to have her cake and bake it, unfortunately leaning further than the adequate Kathryn Meisle and Frederick Weller.
More than most Anouilh, "The Rehearsal" is an exercise in style - it is no accident that its French title is a pun, "Le Repetition" meaning not simply rehearsal but also, literally, repetition.
This sense of modernized, "repeated" if you will, Marivaux must be stressed yet modulated, right from Anouilh's very first joke, when the Countess enters in 18th-century garb and disconcertingly lights a cigarette.
Apart from Rees - who very properly seems like a refugee from a modern version of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" - the whole production misses that special two-time resonance that can make this comedy of extraordinary bad manners shiver with pure pain.
When Roger Rees storms a citadel of virtue, he comes well armed. Playing the ironically named Hero, an alcoholic French aristocrat, in the Roundabout Theater Company's mostly uninspired revival of Jean Anouilh's ''Rehearsal,'' he sets out to disenchant a purity-girded young woman with a stunning arsenal of actorly weapons.
Circling his prey with a look that suggests both the clinical strategist and the self-loathing masochist within, Hero never appears entirely in control. But as he shifts between oily seductiveness and violent attack, with a self-conscious theatricality that is nonetheless perfectly calibrated, Mr. Rees creates the sense of the entire world of an idle class in which love is a blood sport whose rules must be obeyed.
By the time Hero has pierced and shattered the heart of the radiant, unworldly Lucile (Anna Gunn), it is clear that the encounter has claimed two victims. ''I like breaking things,'' Hero often says, in the play's most resonant line. Now, it seems, he has finally achieved his lifelong goal and broken himself beyond redemption.
This memorably nasty skirmish finds the rage that almost always lies behind Anouilh's mannered, whimsical portraits of sophisticated societies that eat their idealists for breakfast. For one moment, the cutting double edges of this world of artifice glitter dangerously. They are only sparks, however, in an evening that remains largely an unformed shadow of what it needs to be.
It could be argued that Mr. Rees's performance is too visibly thought through, but at least it has been thought through, and with considerable intelligence. Drop the quotation marks from around the play's title, and you have a sense of what the rest of this version of ''The Rehearsal'' feels like.
The production, directed by Nicholas Martin (''Full Gallop''), is a gorgeously dressed-up work in progress, with actors still groping to find a style that fits them as well as Michael Krass's lavish period costumes. Seen against Robert Brill's spare but elegant renderings of the rooms of a French chateau in 1950, the performers often seem like restless fashion models rattling off memorized speeches (and long speeches they are), while they're waiting to be photographed by Deborah Turberville.
The company Mr. Martin has assembled is brave and, in some cases, very talented, but there are instances of crucial miscasting. And the several weeks of preparation they've been allowed just isn't enough for a work in which every element must click with the precision of a minuet.
Like many of the plays of Anouilh, probably the most popular Continental dramatist of the midcentury, ''The Rehearsal'' pits the forces of wealth and corruption against a single, impoverished character of exasperatingly solid goodness. As the critic Eric Bentley has pointed out, Anouilh's virgins ''stand alone in a world of debauchees: they yearn for the absolute in the morass of the relative.''
You may know these paradigms as the heroines of Anouilh's better-known plays ''Antigone'' and ''The Lark,'' his portrait of Joan of Arc. Here, the figure who by her very presence threatens the superficial code by which a group of languorous aristocrats exist is a poor teacher of orphans, Lucile.
This deliberately schematic play is partly shaped by the echoes that come from the preparations for a dinner-party production of Marivaux's 18th-century comedy ''The Double Inconstancy.'' But it more directly recalls the more sinister social indictments of ''Les Liaisons Dangereuses'' and Jean Renoir's movie masterpiece, ''The Rules of the Game.'' While it luxuriates in scheming erotic maneuvers and scintillating wit, it is never blind to the malignancy beneath the polish.
The idea of the game, in fact, is the dominant metaphor. In portraying the tangled affairs of the Count (David Threlfall) and Countess (Frances Conroy), who are staging the Marivaux play, it becomes evident that the cardinal rule is never to feel too deeply. Revenge, playfully executed, is a worthy recreation; real love, on the other hand, is dangerously disruptive.
When Lucile, impervious to the seductions of luxury, is brought in to play the ingenuous heroine in ''The Double Inconstancy,'' the disruption begins. She has obviously aroused sentiments in the Count that could rend the fabric of a life lived, as the Count tells his wife, ''as others dance, harmoniously and with measured steps and, above all, a sense of style.''
To fly, any production of ''The Rehearsal'' must apply that style as uniformly and thoroughly as the lacquer on an 18th-century cachepot. Mr. Martin, who brought an elegant and even hand to his staging of ''The Royal Family'' at Williamstown, Mass., last summer, provides only blotches of varnish here.
There are some fetching bits of business throughout: a scene of two women in 18th-century costume circling each other in a dance of coldblooded assessment; some farcical simultaneous openings of doors; and a startling sexual image of the Count's mistress, Hortensia (Kathryn Meisle), seen lounging as nothing but a pair of legs and a pannier skirt.
But the necessary rhythms aren't sustained, either in the direction or in most of the performances. The gifted Mr. Threlfall, who teamed brilliantly with Mr. Rees in the historic Royal Shakespeare Company production of ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' projects the antic, touching restiveness of the Count, but none of his surface suavity. When Lucile tells him that he is still the uncertain, posturing boulevardier of his youth, she's supposed to be seeing what no one else can; she's not. And Mr. Threlfall's accent slides bizarrely between English gentry and Maurice Chevalier.
Ms. Conroy doesn't give bad performances. But she seems tired from the get-go here, as if already daunted by all those densely printed pages of speeches. She has excellent moments, especially in her air of reluctant abasement when the Countess is forced to apologize to Lucile, but her delivery is mostly pitched at one constrained, uncomfortable level.
Ms. Meisle, at least, bites into her acid lines with relish. (She's terrific in the play-within-the-play scenes.) The reliable Nicholas Kepros is fine in the drab part of Lucile's elderly guardian. But the handsome young Frederick Weller, as the Countess's overardent lover, tackles his character like a college football player.
In the all-important role of Lucile, Ms. Gunn, making her Broadway debut, has the right centered calmness. But Anouilh's virgins are tricky: they really do need some of that feverish, waifish incandescence that was the specialty of Julie Harris, who famously played his St. Joan. Ms. Gunn has the sunny sturdiness of a Cybill Shepherd, and one feels she could deck any of the dilettantes around her with a swift jab to the right.
Nonetheless, faced with the corrosive charms of Mr. Rees's Hero, who is sent to seduce Lucile by the Countess, she crumples most affectingly. And Mr. Rees, who has been carefully planting the seeds for that scene throughout his performance as the Count's childhood friend with his own vengeful agenda, lets the poison out of his character like a surgeon lancing a blister.
It's a harrowing moment, all right. It is also the penultimate scene in the production, and it's a mighty long time in coming.
The Rehearsal," Jean Anouilh's modern classic of absolute, unwavering and triumphant cynicism, is a very dark dance indeed at the Roundabout Theater Co. Despite the glittering silver and gold gowns, and a bright white set that almost hurts the eyes, there's nothing less than evil lurking beneath every sequin, smile and bon mot. As the comedy ever so gradually owns up to its own dim view of humanity, so too does Nicholas Martin's first-rate production, its company of actors slowing peeling away the characters' masks of urbane sophistication to reveal the monsters underneath.
Broadway's second revival this week of a play from postwar Europe ("The Rehearsal" opened in Paris in 1950, Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" in London, 1947), Martin's "Rehearsal" succeeds precisely where Scott Elliott's "Laughter" fails: The director of the Roundabout production trusts his material -- trusts his playwright -- and forces nothing. The descent into the play's black soul is as sure as it is unstoppable.
Set in a French chateau in 1950, "Rehearsal," like "Present Laughter," focuses on a close-knit (or at least closely bound) group of sophisticates whose personalities are reflected through the artifice of theater. The Count de Febroques (David Threlfall) has gathered his small coterie in preparation for a lavish party that will include, as per the Count's custom, an elaborate, if amateur, production of a play. The Count, a fun-loving 40-year-old whose steadfast refusal to grow up borders on the decadent, has outfitted his wife and friends in 18th-century dress (Michael Krass' stunning costumes) to rehearse Marivaux's 1723 French classic "The Double Inconstancy."
The Count, who's charming, however devilish, has cast all his actors in roles that mirror their own personalities, so that his wife, the Countess (Frances Conroy) plays a scheming grade dame, his beautiful though heartless lover, Hortensia (Kathryn Meisle, very funny playing a bad actress) plays type, and the lovely, unaffected governess of his children portrays an ingenue noted for just such attributes. It is through these machinations that the Count, as the protagonist of the play-within-the-play, can truthfully express his love for the young girl.
A love, not incidentally, that threatens to obliterate the delicate balance of mendacity with which this clique functions. While the Count and Countess remain intellectual "best friends," each indulging in open-secret affairs (he with Hortensia, she with the handsome though foolishly valiant young stud Villebosse, nicely played by Frederick Weller), their finely constructed marital arrangement has never before been violated by the outside interference of true love.
The Countess, who loves the Count more than she pretends, isn't the only one who fears her husband's newfound emotional rejuvenation. Hortensia, who doesn't love the Count but is loath to be abandoned by him, forms an uneasy alliance with the Countess ("If I were his mistress, I certainly wouldn't allow myself to be treated like this," the wife says to the lover). Soon they're joined by Hero (Roger Rees), the Count's childhood friend, a drunken rogue whose unmitigated cynicism can't tolerate his old friend's happiness. And Hero has a secret, long-ago score to settle with the Count, a score that provides the play its brutal, tragic ending.
During its first act, Anouilh's play, in this very witty translation by Jeremy Sams, has the shimmer of French farce and the breezy mood of a play by, well, Noel Coward. The tone is best exemplified by Conroy's Countess, all surface charm and nonchalant worldliness. She doesn't mind her husband's flings as long as they're with someone as nonthreatening as the vain Hortensia, but faced with the possibility of actually losing her husband -- especially to someone as unsullied as the governess, Lucile (Anna Gunn) -- she turns desperate and vicious. Silly schemes meant to embarrass the girl into resigning give way to something dreadful, a plot in which the drunken, disillusioned Hero is all too willing to participate.
Martin draws thrilling performances from his actors, particularly Rees as the once-loving friend broken by loss and alcohol, a nihilist left only with a fondness for "breaking things." Threlfall and Conroy are terrific as the Count and Countess, each revealing the emotional layers (he the wonder of first, however late, love; she the desperation of losing it) beneath the surface sophistication. Meisle is the embodiment of poisonous vanity (and very, very funny to boot), and Weller gives dimension to the impetuous hunk. Only newcomer Gunn, as the unspoiled governess, seems a bit out of her league, rising to the occasional moment but displaying little of the innocent allure that has the male characters entranced and females jealous.
Martin, who lends the production the same panache he gave the Diana Vreeland bio-play "Full Gallop," carefully guides the play's shifting moods -- notice how the brightly lit chateau gives way to the darkness of the governess's bedroom, where evil trumps innocence. The director gets able support from a technical team that includes set designer Robert Brill, costumer Krass and lighting designer Kenneth Posner.
While rehearsing the play-within-the-play, a character describes the farce as "the elegant anatomy of a crime." That's as good a description of this production as any.