Playwright David Ives updates "The Liar" for the Shakespeare Theatre Company

By Celia Wren
Sunday, April 4, 2010

NEW YORK -- Thank heaven for small mercies -- such as the fact that 17th-century French authors cannot sue.

"Corneille is beyond litigation at this point," playwright David Ives quips as he sits in his tidy Manhattan apartment, near a coffee table sporting a vase of red tulips and a volume of Rilke, discussing his retooling of "The Liar," a 1643 comedy by Pierre Corneille.

When Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company commissioned an adaptation of the piece -- about a young gallant who's addicted to fibbing -- the assignment came with permission to tinker. A good thing, too, in Ives's view: While retaining the original's rhymed-couplet structure, he wanted to trim lengthy speeches, recalibrate some characterization and fine-tune the ending.

"I knew that it was going to have to be jiggered with a bit for today's audiences," the bespectacled 59-year-old says. After all, he points out, in further justification of his "Liar," which premieres Tuesday at the Lansburgh Theatre under Michael Kahn's direction, "you can't write for dead people. You can only write for the living."

It's the kind of calmly audacious assertion you might expect from Ives, whose intellectually daring and often comic plays have dealt with topics as diverse as mating mayflies, the lothario Don Juan, a construction worker who thinks he's Marie Antoinette, the building of the Tower of Babel, and a visit to a bakery by Philip Glass (the dialogue mimics the composer's repetitive style).

Ives, a Chicago native, made his name in New York in the early 1990s with "All in the Timing," a sampling of his many zany, high-concept one-acts. But he has also penned more sober, full-length dramas. In his "New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656," which off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company premiered in 2008, the philosopher Spinoza discusses Descartes, immortality and the nature of God. (Washington's Theater J will stage "New Jerusalem" in June.)

In January, Classic Stage unveiled Ives's erotically charged "Venus in Fur," inspired by the writings of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who gave his name to the word masochism. The suspenseful meditation on power, desire and self-deception became the company's highest-grossing show ever, and there is interest in moving it to Broadway.

Ives is "one of America's great wits" and a writer with "extraordinary range and intellectual muscle," says Walter Bobbie, who directed "New Jerusalem" and "Venus" for Classic Stage (and whose production of Terrence McNally's "Golden Age" wraps up Sunday at the Kennedy Center). A play about Spinoza "might send audiences fleeing out of the theater," Bobbie says, but Ives "makes complex issues very understandable."

"David Ives is America's Tom Stoppard," says Classic Stage artistic director Brian Kulick, calling both writers "wildly inventive, wildly funny, and not afraid of great, big, fat ideas -- of finding a way for a very big idea to be alive and present for a contemporary audience."

Kulick is eager not to give the "funny" part short shrift: "Sometimes I think David has escaped from an Oliver Sacks novel. He's neurologically wired to make us laugh."

'A master cutter'

But if Ives is known for his smart, whimsical works, he has a sideline as a pragmatic adapter. His tailoring of "The Liar" follows his French-to-English rendering of Georges Feydeau's 1907 farce "A Flea in Her Ear" and his fix-it job on the long-lost comedy "Is He Dead?," which reached Broadway in 2007, 100-plus years after Mark Twain wrote it.

Ives has also touched up the books of no fewer than 28 vintage musicals for New York City Center's Encores!, a concert-staging series. Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel says Ives is the go-to guy because he's "a master cutter" who "leaves no fingerprints." If concert logistics require an extra line in a Moss Hart show, Ives produces one that "sounds like Moss Hart wrote it," Viertel says. "And if it's a line in a George Abbott show, it sounds like George Abbott."

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