SOLANA BEACH — The year: 1666; the setting: France. The language: anything but stodgy.
The North Coast Repertory Theatre hosted the San Diego premiere of “School for Lies,” on Saturday night, and with its language as flashy as the players’ wardrobes, there was little in the way of disappointment.
Working from a play by the 17 century French playwright Moliere, David Ives sets loose a lyrical barrage of rhyme in iambic pentameter with his adaptation of “The Misanthrope.” The story of a man attempting to cut through society’s hypocrisies with the truth is updated here with modern day language, adult in some areas, and tinged with bourgeois English accents.
It’s the kind of production the North Coast Repertory Theatre does so well.
The action, more verbal than physical, takes place in a French-style drawing room, where a single staircase divides the gilded set in two. Several doorways lead on and off the stage.
The sudden appearance of Frank (Richard Baird) has everyone in France’s high society buzzing over his unabashed and unfiltered opinions, which he’s only too willing to share — even if it means being sued for libel.
“I never joke. I have no sense of humor,” says Frank, whose stark black outfit contrasts heavily with the glittery and electric-colored wardrobes of the others in high society.
Hearing what they didn’t expect to hear only shocks and stuns those who have fallen in the crosshairs of Frank’s barbs. One of the first to feel Frank’s fury is the poet Oronte (Phil Johnson). Oronte, while attempting to read a poem addressed to an unnamed lover, is lambasted — the prose, Frank says, as purple as the hairy mole on Oronte’s nose.
Frank has a friend in Philinte (Joel Ripka) who tries to corral his outspoken ways, though it’s apparent Frank isn’t to be censored.
“Society is nothing but a school for lies,” Frank says.
Between Frank’s cynicisms and digs at just about everything comes the butler Dubois, played by the ever-able Jonathan McMurtry. Shuffling across the stage with a tray of canapés becomes a recurring sight gag in the production.
When Celimene (Jessica John Gercke) arrives to meet Frank, they go toe-to-toe in a battle of wits over whether he’s right or wrong to tell things like they are.
At one point in the production, Frank runs out into the audience and sits in the aisle, as Celimene, on stage, does her best impersonation of him, mocking his ideals.
Only when Philinte begins two lies, one about Frank the other of Celimene, does it excite a real change.
Believing that Celimene loves him, Frank begins to change. His wardrobe changes, though only slightly. Instead of his all black suit, his collar and cuffs are now lined with glinting jewels; instead of his unkempt hair, it’s now slicked back and combed through.
“God knows how love can change a man,” the once-acerbic man says.
Meanwhile, Celimene has come to believe that Frank has a powerful relative that can help defend her in a libel court case.
The chemistry between Baird and Gercke is appealing, cutting at each other with pointed words and mimicry before settling into shared warmth in Act II.
“School of Lies” is adeptly filled out with a supporting cast that shows off just as much verbal dexterity to maintain this solid, unforced production directed by Andrew Paul.
Brenda Dodge as Eliante brings a sweetness to her role, while Jason Heil brings laughs as Acaste, an empty-headed, self-involved beau with bows in his hair; and David McBean as Clitander, whose name people have fun mispronouncing, comes in with his nose in the air and his finger up it.
There’s enough here to like in “School of Lies” that it’s worth going to see, and that’s the truth.
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Ste. D, Solana Beach
When: Wednesdays 7 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays 2 p.m., Sundays 7 p.m. Ends March 16
Info: (858) 481-1055 or northcoastrep.org
Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes