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L'Affaire de la Queen's Necklace

Griffin Theatre Company

Call it the Epcot Syndrome of script writing. Like that multicultural annex of the Magic Kingdom, which re-creates cities from all over the world so you don't have to bother going to see them, writers seem more and more intent on creating new "period" dramas, reasonable facsimiles and pastiches of centuries-old scripts. Theater and film audiences alike have been subjected over the past few years to "new" Moliere (La Bete), "new" Frank Capra (the Coen brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy), and "new" Fritz Lang, Anton Chekhov, and Ingmar Bergman courtesy of a certain neurotic Manhattan scribe. There's nothing wrong per se with re-creating long-gone epochs and theatrical forms if a writer has something to say about them. People like Peter Shaffer have done it with great success. But when the object is merely to imitate something that someone else has done better, the whole effort seems pointless.

Like other Epcot scripts, Griffin Theatre's L'Affaire de la Queen's Necklace, by William Massolia, is not so much an effort to shed new light on Marie Antoinette or prerevolutionary France as to approximate the language and structure of an old French play. Seemingly pieced together from the works of writers like Beaumarchais and Dumas and Hollywood period films, Massolia's play is a reasonably amusing counterfeit. But it's never fully engaging because all its dialogue, characters, and plot contrivances seem to be borrowed from other, superior sources.

Set in the court of Versailles during the reign of Louis XVI, L'Affaire de la Queen's Necklace is a historically based account of how a group of cunning thieves enlist the aid of a seer and a corrupt cardinal to steal a magnificent necklace made for Marie Antoinette; in so doing, they touch off the civic unrest that ultimately leads to the 1789 French Revolution. The play is littered with the usual suspects: wily and giggly ladies of the evening, a madame with a heart of gold, a trio of proud and lustful thieves, a seemingly doomed starry-eyed couple, a toady of a jeweler, a fraudulent prophet, a cackling, deranged gravedigger, and of course the absolutely sweet Marie.

There's a fair amount of swordplay, astutely orchestrated by G. Scott Thomas, a de rigueur masquerade ball, expertly choreographed by Sara Devlin, and enough risque interplay between gentlemen in knickers and ladies with heaving bodices to appeal to the old-fashioned romantics and the men in raincoats. The problem is that, since the play is more homage than true drama, nothing onstage feels especially important or affecting. One never feels the sense of danger or intensity possible when reading Dumas, say. Even when one of Massolia's most charismatic characters gets offed in a tragic plot twist, one is more inclined to shrug than gasp. The plot itself is mechanical. The number of schemers involved in the theft seems greater than would be necessary--but all the characters in the play need something to do. And as for the so-called romance, the portrayals of prostitutes as happy-go-lucky gold diggers, figures that would be equally at home draped over pianos in Old West saloons, are dated and uncritical to say the least.

The greatest problem, however, is Massolia's stiff language: in order to give the impression of accuracy, he often makes it sound as if the dialogue has been translated from the "original" French by some grad student. Sentences like "the taxes they levy on all of us are burdensome" fall from actors' mouths like boulders to the stage. Sometimes, in an effort to be poetic, Massolia is merely repetitive: "What is that scent? It has an unusual odor," or "Five hundred ninety-three diamonds. All perfect. No imperfections." His occasional French slang is anachronistic, and a couple of gratuitous racist remarks, which probably would have been edited out if this were truly an 18th-century play, are rather peculiar. A reference to a "negress" prostitute ("She's very primitive--she'll do it on all fours") is particularly galling. If the remark is intended to give the script gritty accuracy, what was the playwright doing for the other two and a half hours of the play?

Director Richard Barletta proves himself an adept engineer of complex scenes, eliciting uniformly intelligent performances from the 16 relatively green cast members. But even the best acting and direction can't change the imitative monotony of the whole endeavor or make it the least bit relevant. With so many worthy contemporary topics, with so many historical periods that haven't been done to death in the theater, with so many classic plays worthy of revival, watching this mediocre forgery of 18th-century French literature just seems silly.

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