Undead Uncles – ‘Heir Apparent’ at ICT

Courtesy International City Theatre

‘Heir Apparent’ at ICT through mid July is Molière by way of MAD Magazine. David Ives adapts a story by Jean-François Regnard into two acts of rhymed couplets set in not France at no specific time. Twenty-something orphan Eraste (Wallace Angus Bruce) wants to marry the lovely Isabelle (Suzanne Jolie Narbonne) but needs his wealthy miserly hypochondriac Uncle Geronte (Matthew Henerson) to hand in his dinner pail and hand him a sizeable fortune. Love doesn’t come cheap, no matter the era. Trouble is that Uncle is healthier than a horse and has designs on the girl himself. Add an ambitious mother (Rebecca Spencer), two clever servants, and stir for farce. If it sounds like ‘Imaginary Invalid’ and other famous French plays, Wikipedia tells us Regnard was heavily influenced by Molière.  Therefore it must be true.

Director Matt Walker effectively marshals an able cast, a large production team, and a small dog. Walker is best known for his work with The Troubadour Theatre where he sets Shakespeare to modern music, typically the rock and/or the roll. The troupe is therefore wildly popular with the young people and are reputed to sell out a show as soon as it is announced. ‘Heir’ is a good way for musical theatre haters to get acquainted with him.

The play’s central conceit is estate fraud. Uncle Geronte’s complaints are mostly digestive and are usually palliated by saucy maid Lisette’s (Paige Lindsey White) potions. The situation is obnoxious but hardly fatal. Lisette is of course enamored of Crispin (Adam J. Smith), valet to Eraste, who can’t marry her until Eraste comes into money. Act One has the robust Geronte bequeathing to distant American relations, coveting the young girl, and generally bypassing his nephew. Then he inconveniently appears to die without formalizing his bequest. What are young people to do in Act Two except to get a gullible lawyer (Adam von Almen) to draft a fake will and forge Geronte’s signature to it?

The script isn’t for analysis, ‘Heir’ is about as French as ‘Mikado’ is Japanese. This is comedy and Walker plays it broadly. The set (Christopher Scott Murillo) and lights (Jeremy Pivnick) well match the frenetic pace. Mark McClain Wilson’s sound design adds sibilance, flatulence, bleeps, plurps, and fleedles right on cue. Since part of the scam involves discrediting the American relations by dressing up as them, credit the wardrobe crew (Michael Greene) in getting several players in and out of Kim DeShazo’s fine costumes.

Smith turns in an excellent Crispin with the evening belonging to the booming Geronte who proves exceedingly difficult to kill – even when it looks like the plots have succeeded. Think Old Mahon from ‘Playboy of the Western World’ and you have him. Incidentally, Henerson played just that role at Furious Theatre in 2002, playing up at least two decades in age then and now. It is axiomatic that we all root for the attractive youngsters but eventually we feel more than a little sympathy for the old guy in the face of forgery, attempted murder, and signs that Eraste is himself a craven, entitled miser in the making.

Jessica Kubzansky, another renowned LA director, staged a riotous  ‘A Servant to Two Masters’ at ICT back in 2001 with sound legend John Zalewski providing live accompaniment from stage right.   ‘Heir’ doesn’t reach that level of mania. It isn’t clear if Ives’s script can benefit from pratfalls and physical comedy or if Walker just elected not to go that route. It all snapped and crackled but didn’t quite pop. Part of it is the script where the Yankee subplot ran a little long and the remainder can be put on the audience. The actors sent tremendous energy into the space but didn’t get enough back. Opening night crowds in LA are often criticized for being too enthusiastic. This one was far from hostile but the laughter and involvement didn’t reach the level required to get the comedic pot to boil. The same production deserves and, in front of different people, should get a much better reception.

Heir Apparent
by David Ives
Directed by Matt Walker
at The International City Theatre
June 17 – July 12, 2015
Thu. – Sat. at 8pm
Sun. at 2pm
Tickets online at Center Stage Ticketing
Box Office: 562-436-4610 (M-F 9am – 5pm)

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