Puff: Believe or Not
At the Remy Bumppo Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—A modern playgoer could attend the theater for a lifetime and never see a work by Eugene Scribe. Yet Scribe was one of France’s hottest dramatists during the first half of the 1800’s, writing or co-authoring more than 400 shows, including operas and operettas (he died in 1861),
The Remy Bumppo Theatre is giving its audiences what likely will be their first exposure to Scribe with a revival of his 1848 comedy “Le Puff,” in a translation by English theater man Ranjit Bolt, called “Puff: Believe It or Not.” Is the play an undiscovered masterpiece? Not really. But it is a lot of fun after a talky first 45 minutes or so, but once the Remy Bumppo production energizes into a high gear, “Puff” is an exceedingly well-acted hoot.
“Puff” mixes social satire with romance. Albert, a cavalry officer, returns to Paris after spending five years in North Africa. On a Parisian street he saves the life of the upper class Cesar by pulling him away from the wheels of a carriage. The two men immediately strike up a friendship and the plot is off and running.
Cesar sets the tone of the play by instructing Albert that the upper class Paris of the day is steeped in dishonesty, hypocrisy, double dealing, and dissimulation (in the dictionary, “puff” is defined as “exaggerated praise”). Everyone knows society is built on falsity and everyone practices it. Albert, an honorable man, is appalled, but Cesar tut-tuts that this is the way of the world and it’s best just go to with the flow.
The play is clearly entering Moliere territory, exposing the moral corruption that is society’s coin of the realm. Unfortunately, the early part of the play lacks Moliere’s wit, or at least the wit we enjoy in Richard Wilbur’s superb verse translations of the great man’s comedies.
Happily, by the intermission all the pieces are in place for the high flying final act. We have been introduced to the play’s two female components, Corrine and Antonia. Both want to marry, Antonio loves Albert, and Corrine is after the pompous, avaricious, and self-dramatizing Count de Marignan, not because Corrine loves the aristocrat but because he is rich and Corrine craves his financial standing and his title.
The second act is largely consumed with whether the Count will marry Antonia for her alleged fortune, leaving Albert, her true love, out in the cold. Following one plot reversal after another, everything works out to the advantage of both the good and the dishonest guys. Albert, the only high-minded figure in the play, finally compromises his principles for the greater good, or at least comfort, of the others, and everyone makes out fine both romantically and financially by the final blackout.
If the play has a philosophical point, it’s that the moral high road is fine in the abstract but in everyday life one must adjust to the realities of society, which covets money and reputation and social standing. Play the game, look the other way, lie when necessary, flatter and scheme when appropriate, and you’ll thrive.
Ranjit Bolt completed his translation in 2004 but surprisingly the Remy Bumppo staging is its world premiere. Artistic director Nick Sandys has accepted the challenge, deftly orchestrating a production that capitalizes on several outstanding comic performances.
David Darlow has been one of the pillars of the Chicagoland theater scene for many years. It’s no surprise that he delivers a deliciously droll performance as Cesar, a basically good man who craftily manipulates his way through society’s moral minefield. The production’s revelation is Kelsey Brennan’s Corrine. Brennan has been a Remy Bumppo stalwart for years and presents a delectable portrait of a character constantly with her eye on the main chance, brushing aside scruples when necessary (and it always seems necessary) as she stalks Count Marignan’s money and social position. She’s a perfect match for the excellent Christopher Sheard’s insufferable (but rich and highly placed) Marignan. After they are married, I suspect that the Count will be too self absorbed to be bothered by Corrine’s obsession with money and social status.
As Albert, Joshua Moany has the tall ramrod physical presence of a career soldier who prizes integrity and honesty above all. Albert’s rectitude is admirable but he’s picked a difficult time and place to display his decency. But with a last minute readjusting of his moral outlook, Albert saves the other characters, good and bad, from probable disgrace, penury, and bad marriages. There is also a first rate comic performance by Peter Davies as an avaricious and duplicitous Parisian publisher. The ensemble is rounded out by Netta Walker as Antonia and Gregory Geffrard as her guardian.
All the action is played out on Joe Schermoly’s minimal but elegant and clever interior set design. Combined with the properties design by Jamie Karas, the set nicely evokes the upscale world of Parisian society of the day. Rachel Lambert has designed a wardrobe of authentic looking costumes, though I question the historical veracity an outfit Corrine wears near the end of the play that looks more Alexander McQueen than an example of French couture of the early 19th century. The lighting design by Andrew Meyer and the sound design and original music by Victoria Deiorio add quality components to the physical production.
“Puff” is a high-risk choice for Remy Bumppo, arriving as a previously unproduced translation by a little known playwright. The viewer needs patience while the script gets all its dramatic ducks in a row, but from then on it’s clear sailing, ultimately dropping ethical anchor at Albert’s moral dilemma (too complicated to specify here). Still, viewers probably will take too much comic pleasure from the clever dialogue and excellent production to fret about what they would do if they were in Albert’s shoes. Plus there is the continual satisfaction of watching Kelsey Brennan’s captivating comic performance.
“Puff: Believe It or Not” runs through January 7 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 with some additional matinees from December 20 through December 30. Tickets are $42.50 to $52.50. Call 773 404 7336 or visit www.RemyBumppo.org.
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