Amelia Pedlow stars as Lucille in The Metromaniacs at Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Scott Suchman)
Theater critic

The brainy “Metromaniacs”

Is sharper than a thousand tacks.

And funny? Man, it shakes the walls

Of Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh hall.

Mere prose just seems too dull after you’ve spent 100 sparkling minutes with “The Metromaniacs,” the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ingenious resurrection of an obscure 18th-century French comedy. This almost criminally enjoyable world premiere (in verse!) reunites director Michael Kahn and David Ives, the master adapter and cutup artist who brought “The Liar” and “The Heir Apparent” to the STC and the sexy “Venus in Fur” everywhere.

What a find: In “Metromaniacs,” Ives and Kahn get to frolic in a classic literary scandal while gorging on a smorgasbord of jokes high and low. (How low? “Brittany” Spears low, since one of these 1738 characters is said to hail from Brittany.) From the nimble verse to the deluxe decor, the style is to die for, with the elegantly dressed salonistes capering amid the fine fake woods (by scenic designer James Noone) that have been erected for a play in an upscale Parisian ballroom.

Like the bracing “Dunsinane” around the corner at the STC’s Harman Hall, “Metromaniacs” is a marvel of old and new. “Dunsinane” reimagines “Macbeth” in terms of a modern occupying power; “Metromaniacs” puts on vintage robes (the unfailingly smart 18th-century costumes are by Murell Horton) yet feels ready for a fashion runway. The original play was written by Alexis Piron, who was partly inspired by a real-life scandal in which Voltaire praised the poetry of an unknown woman who turned out to be a prank-pulling man. That kind of gossipy upending is always the mode, and Ives is plainly turned on by Piron’s frisky, competitive wordplay and high-octane mixups.

What Ives treats us to is a juicy pileup of rivalries among a set of Paris “metromaniacs,” or poetry addicts. A meddling father named Francalou (Adam LeFevre) writes verse that is routinely trashed by Damis, a haughty and handsome young poet with nerd glasses and windblown hair. As Damis, the hilariously zealous Christian Conn is like an exotic bird, even standing on one leg at times as he rapturously recites.

But Damis is being duped: The suburban female poet he admires (and who has yet to be seen in public) is actually the wily Francalou. Damis is undercover, too — posing both as someone named Cosmo de Cosmos and as aspiring playwright Bouillabaisse — and he falls for Francalou’s hot but dim daughter, Lucille (Amelia Pedlow). Naturally, so does Damis’s strapping but illiterate friend, Dorante (Anthony Roach), who admits, “My brain’s a turd.”

Kahn’s production goes like a shot. The cast speaks brilliantly, hopping onto the high wire of Ives’s rhymes and nailing punch lines that glisten with classical flair and contemporary savvy. “Twain” is twinned with “bwain” (er, “brain,” the addled characters clarify). Reviews from the literary magazine Parnassus are said to be “lyric tweets.” Ives couldn’t be having more fun.

Neither could the actors, who make this demanding style look like the best party in town. LeFevre sets a droll tone as the amiably windy Francalou, while the animated Conn is matched in romantic intensity by Roach’s athletic and eager Dorante. As the love object Lucille, who finds the sound of poetry going straight to her loins, Pedlow is excellent with the lazy Valley Girl “whatever-r-r-r”’s and hot blossoming passions that come later.

Dina Thomas and Michael Goldstrom are saucy and peppy as a maid and valet; the balanced cast’s timing and verbal verve are impeccable from end to end. The language is golden, yet Kahn also deftly keeps the show on the move. It would spoil too much to describe the surprising slapstick machinery as plots are scotched and identities blur, but let’s just say the show is wonderfully alive without ever growing annoyingly antic (and there’s at least one great recurring physical gag that works every time).

The mixups are so deliriously complicated that you worry you’ll never keep them straight, but Ives’s self-aware characters helpfully see to it that you do. Count on “The Metromaniacs” to have a long life in the country’s regional theaters, but don’t bet on it looking better or being more sheer fun than this.

The Metromaniacs

By David Ives, adapted from
“La Metromanie” by Alexis Piron. Directed by Michael Kahn. Lights, Mark McCullough; sound design, Matt Tierney; composer, Adam Wernick; period movement consultant, Frank Ventura. With Peter Kybart, Danny Cackley and Ross Destiche. About 100 minutes. Through March 8 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW.
Tickets: $20-$110.
Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.