Apple Tree Theatre Company

By Lawrence Bommer

Scapin, Rusty Magee’s musicalization of Moliere’s 1670 Les Fourberies de Scapin, is an adaptation true to its source: this slight farce becomes an even slighter musical.

Working from a hip but weak translation and adaptation by Shelley Berc and Andrei Belgrader, Magee has written ten more or less forgettable songs, most of them clumsy spoofs of better stuff; their sole strength is that they’re too brief to slow down Moliere’s mayhem.

Moliere’s flimsy plot centers around the wily servant Scapin, a rogue who shrewdly serves his own interests by aiding two unhappy young men whose love interests go against the wishes of their selfish, greedy fathers. Then, playing both sides against the middle, Scapin extorts cash from the gullible dads (not much scheming for commedia, considering that’s basically all he does). Then, as Scapin is about to be exposed, he’s rescued by the wild coincidences of a whipped-up happy ending.

It’s silly stuff, which may explain Scapin’s recent hit revival at Yale Repertory Theatre; no doubt the sophomores loved its freshman humor–it couldn’t have been the songs. But unfortunately the Apple Tree Theatre Company is not near a campus, and though children would love the slapstick, the blue stuff makes the play unsuitable for them. That leaves only ordinary adults–for whom the big lure has to be Ross Lehman, vaudeville crisp and shamelessly hammy in the title role.

If ever a vehicle was yoked to a comic genius, it’s Scapin. The manic, multifaced Lehman mugs, leers, impersonates, deadpans, croons, rampages, works the house, indulges himself, and offends–some of his shticks will trample on cultural sensibilities.

Lehman’s Scapin is a Phil Silvers on amphetamines, a 100-minute audition for the comic hall of fame. He terrifies one fatuous father into diving into a sack, then impersonates all of his multiethnic “assailants.” Hurling himself into Scapin’s one passable number, a blues anthem called “The Way I’ve Got,” Lehman belts it out like the class clown on a tear. Later Scapin fakes a death scene to save his skin, and Lehman rushes pell-mell into the script’s hilarious anachronistic litany of corny celluloid “last words”–Little Caesar, Citizen Kane, Star Trek, and too many more.

As skilled as Lehman is at choking laughs from a crowd, he shouldn’t have to carry the show as much as he does. Except for Matthew McDonald’s splenetically stupid performance as the miser father, Craig Kinzer’s staging offers too little comic support for Lehman’s flights of whimsy and too many forced gags. As the desperate, wimpy young men, Phil Johnson and David Bonanno are efficient but uninspired, their efforts more forced than combustible. Cynthia Cook has pert fun with her brief scenes as one of the missing daughters, but Carlton Miller as the other sports a “gypsy” accent that disappears within seconds. She’s clearly sharper at singing than comedy. Backing up the undistinguished score are Larry Mohl on guitar and smoothly proficient Mark Weston on keyboards (which include a nearly inaudible harpsichord and a hokey accordion).

Complete with cleverly outsize props, Michael Biddle’s brightly painted set looks like a pop-up book come to life; and Caryn Weglarz’s costumes seem to have jumped right out of a Warner Brothers cartoon. Would that their hilarity were more contagious. Lehman could coax laughs from a pet rock, but overall the opening-night crowd (and first-nighters usually give “the kindness of strangers” a whole new meaning) kept its guffaws under tight control.