Are women really necessary? Eugene Labiche’s answer couldn’t be clearer: No.
That’s the gist of his 1876 comedy “Le Prix Martin,” (The Martin Prize), currently running at the Theatre de l’Odeon in Paris. The revival has been staged by Peter Stein, the celebrated German director.
It’s the funniest show in town.
Labiche (1815-88) was no gay activist. He’s one of the grand masters of French farce who authored more than 150 plays, many written in collaboration with other playwrights.
With Georges Feydeau, his great successor, he shared the same pet subject -- extra-marital lust among the French bourgeoisie.
In his later years, Feydeau became increasingly misogynistic. After a violent domestic quarrel, he left his wife and moved into a hotel. He ended his life in a sanatorium where he was treated for neurasthenia.
“Le Prix Martin” is less aggressive than Feydeau’s late plays. Yet the message is unmistakable: Although adultery may be fun at the beginning, it soon turns into a terrible burden.
Ferdinand Martin (Jacques Weber) is a wealthy rentier. His best friend Agenor (Laurent Stocker) is having a liaison with his wife Loisa (Christine Citti).
When Agenor feels lustful, he indicates his readiness for a tryst by chalking a horizontal line on the husband’s back. A vertical line means a no-show with Loisa at their love nest on (the appropriately named) Rue de Paradis.
By the time the curtain opens, the lines have mostly been vertical. Agenor has enough of Loisa’s affection and gives in only when she threatens to poison herself.
When Martin finds out what the chalk marks on his coat mean, prodded by his hot-blooded cousin Hernandez Martinez (Pedro Casablanc) who’s visiting from Guatemala, he reluctantly agrees to kill his rival by pushing him into the Handeck gorge in Switzerland.
Arriving at the scene of the crime, though, he finds one pretext after another for not proceeding with his plan. In the end, he contents himself with obliging the repentant Agenor to endow an annual prize, the Prix Martin, for the best piece of writing condemning “the infamy of seducing the wife of one’s best friend.”
While Loisa flees with the macho cousin to Guatemala, the two friends find themselves where they were at the beginning of the play -- at the card table.
Stein, who started out as a wild-eyed iconoclast, has become a vociferous critic of what the Germans call “Regietheater.” He doesn’t try to modernize the action nor does he turn the play into a hysterical sitcom.
He has staged it with a deadpan restraint that makes the outlandish story all the more hilarious. With its stylish sets (Ferdinand Woegerbauer) and costumes (Anna Maria Heinreich), this is a traditional production that the playwright would have recognized and enjoyed.
Happily, Stein has found two first-class actors for the leads: Weber as the towering, rotund cuckold and Stocker as his diminutive friend form a fat-thin duo that reminded me of Laurel and Hardy.
The rest of the cast is decent enough not to spoil the fun. Rating: ****.
“Le Prix Martin” runs through May 5. Information: +33-1-4485-4040 or http://www.theatre-odeon.eu.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on New York restaurants and Rich Jaroslovsky on technology.
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-so * Poor (No stars) Avoid