By Celia Wren
Sunday, April 4, 2010; E03
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."
As for how he has able to shuttle so easily between his roles as idiosyncratic playwright and prudent script doctor, Ives says (in a post-interview e-mail): "It's quite simple. My paternal grandfather was a chameleon."
Maybe. Or maybe it's because his theatrical gear-switching is, well, his only gear-switching: He says that his idea of fun, when he's not writing, is to "think about writing." (Okay, he also reads and listens to music -- as is obvious from the books and CDs in the apartment he shares with his wife, Martha, a visual artist.)
Ives also esteems the art of adaptation. But, we wondered, isn't there more glory in writing a new text than in revising an old one?
"Is a child less than a parent?" he parried. "Is a baby less than a mother? I know that if it was good enough for Shakespeare" -- an inveterate revamper of other people's stuff -- "it's good enough for me."
Admittedly, he tries to be picky. Signing on to "Dance of the Vampires," a now-notorious 2002 Broadway flop based on a Roman Polanski film, was "the biggest mistake of my life," Ives says. The experience taught him that "I must never work on anything that I don't love."High-wire wit
He fell in love with theater when he was about 9, turning an obscure thriller in his parents' library into a short script. Then, as a teenager, he saw Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy onstage in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," and the die was cast. He majored in English at Northwestern University, worked as an editor at Foreign Affairs -- writing creatively the while -- and enrolled in the MFA playwriting program at the Yale drama school.
His subsequent career brought him to the attention of Kahn, the Shakespeare Theatre's artistic director. Kahn was particularly impressed by Ives's sprightly makeover of "Is He Dead?," a comedy that the artistic director had read in its original form and found lackluster.
In 2008, as part of its ReDiscovery Series, which airs overlooked classics, the Shakespeare Theatre offered a reading of "The Liar" in a British translation. Kahn thought Corneille's romp had "charm and wit," he remembers -- but none of the translations seemed satisfying. When a grant from the Beech Street Foundation enabled the company to start commissioning new adaptations of older dramatic gems, "The Liar" seemed likely material. (Corneille's comedy was itself an adaptation of an earlier play by a Mexican Spanish author.)
So Kahn approached Ives, aware that the writer would need license to tweak.
"An adaptation should connect a modern audience to a play as fully as it can -- otherwise, why re-adapt it?" Kahn says.
Ives, who had brushed up his French for "A Flea in Her Ear," was not familiar with "The Liar" but fell hard for it upon a first reading: "I thought, 'God, how is it people don't know this play? It just sparkles!' "
That seemed partly an effect of the original's rhymed couplets -- a format that, he thinks, suits the narrative. The prevaricating hero, Dorante (Christian Conn in Kahn's production), is "on a high-wire act for the whole play," Ives says. "And so the language has to do the same."
He resolved to write his "Liar" in iambic pentameter, with rhyming couplets -- a new challenge for him. (Parts of his 1995 comedy "Don Juan in Chicago" deploy less rigorous rhyme.) To prep, Ives read Shakespearean sonnets out loud every morning.
"I felt like an athlete," he says, "but instead of skipping rope, I was skipping pentameter."
"The Liar" by Pierre Corneille, translated and adapted by David Ives, directed by Michael Kahn. April 6 -- May 23, 2010, at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Wren is a freelance writer.