It takes an act of theater wizardry to make a play rife with diarrhea jokes, cross-dressing and mistaken identities seem sophisticated. But this is what David Ives has done in The Heir Apparent.
Loosely based on Jean-FranÃ§ois Regnard’s 1708 French farce, Le Legataire Universel, it’s the story of a treasure hunt of sorts, namely the quest of the young Eraste (Dave Quay) to be named the sole heir to the fortune of his ailing uncle Geronte (Paxton Whitehead) and secure a leisurely future for himself and his fiancÃ©e Isabelle (Amelia Pedlow), daughter of the icy Madame Argante (Suzanne Bertish). Eager to claim their own slice of the pie, Eraste’s quick-witted servant Crispin (Carson Elrod) and his intended Lisette (Claire Karpen) become their co-conspirators.
The best laid plans, of course, often go awry, and in The Heir Apparent they do so again and again. Though pale as a ghost and coughing spasmodically, Geronte is not as near-death as these opportunists might hope. The old man is, in fact, lively (or perhaps deranged) enough to propose marriage to Isabelle. In one of the play’s most acrobatic logical feats, she agrees, though her heart still lies with Eraste.
What follows is a series of outlandish capers designed to guide Geronte’s hand. Often, Eraste and his crew nearly foil their own plots as poor communication and bad timing get in the way. Geronte, meanwhile, hovers inexplicably between lucidity and senility and life and death, requiring the group to keep thinking on its feet.
Most of their schemes, like so many beloved and silly comedies, involve equal parts dress up and slapdash improvisation. Across the board, they serve as a platform for the many talents of Elrod, a versatile, affable actor with a great sense for character. Whether he’s donning a walrus-like fake mustache, a Little Bo Peep dress or a sick man’s robe, his delivery is energetic and precise, never sloppy. Appearing as an impossibly short and priggish lawyer (Scruple) later in the play, David Pittu gives an equally memorable performance.
David C. Woolard’s costumes and Paul Huntley’s wigs facilitate these illusions. John Lee Beatty’s ostentatious living room set, meanwhile, perfects the play’s 18th century vibe. But make no mistake: The Heir Apparent is a play of the 21st century in both tone and content. Occasional references to current events, including a nod to the debate over national health care, are the least of the play’s features bound to resonate with modern theatergoers.
Those gestures are sometimes unnecessary. A few attempts at audience participation are rather uninspired, and one fourth wall-shattering recap of events seems to underestimate our ability to keep up with the plot.
Largely though, Ives’ script doesn’t miss a beat, and his wit and knack for wordplay prove consistently delightful. Unexpected rhymes – “generating tots” and “jigawatts,” for instance — are among the play’s chief intellectual rewards. Still, more populist gags, including a farting clock and a key on an absurdly long, extendable string are equally hilarious. Indeed, this is Ives’ magic: Even when it’s at its dumbest, The Heir Apparent is still brilliant.