Theater Review: THE METROMANIACS (Theatre 40, Beverly Hills)

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by Marc Wheeler on August 4, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


Poetry is all the rage in the madcap comedy, The Metromaniacs, David Ives’ 2015 English “translaptation” of La Métromanie (1738), an obscure French farce by Alexis Piron. While La Métromanie jocularly reflected the “poetry craze” of its era, Ives’ remake offers a modern lens in which to lovingly jeer that same 18th-century phenomenon. The plot is knowingly convoluted; Act II begins with a character attempting to piece it all together for the audience. For The Metromaniacs, however, it’s not about “getting” each of its outrageous plot points, it’s about the folly of mistaken identities while basking in lyrical poesy. More specifically, it’s about 18th-century poets and their crazed admirers — and it’s written (you guessed it) in verse. On the page, it’s a spirited delight; as directed by Marjorie Hayes for Theatre 40, it’s a recipe for departure. According to Ives (All in the Timing, Venus in Fur), Piron’s play was a scandalous hit. Without saying his name, the work seemed to mock Voltaire after the prolific writer publicly proclaimed his love for a famed rural “poetess” who was later revealed to be an elite male Parisian hellbent on acquiring the fame long denied him by the poetry establishment — hence, the rampant love-foolery of The Metromaniacs. It’s no surprise that such a romp would be something Ives would want to reenvision. In a 1994 interview with Charlie Rose, the Harold Pinter/Samuel Beckett-compared playwright states that Monty Python and The Three Stooges have been his biggest inspirations. The Metromaniacs leans into such hijinks. Coupling meta-silliness and end-rhyming couplets, the work requires a cast up to the task; but jokes in this production, sadly, fall between the cracks. Don’t take my word for it. At the top of the show, a mere 22 people entered the intimate Beverly Hills theater; after intermission, only 9 of us remained; more than half the audience had left.

Ravaged by tripped lines and a miscast, mismatched ensemble (for whom “convincing heterosexuality” sometimes proves a struggle), the production uncomfortably totters till curtain. The biggest culprit is an unclear sense of time and place — which even the program states is Paris, 1738. Sure, the costumes (Michèle Young), wigs and make-up (Judi Lewin), and music (Nick Foran’s chosen Bach, even if digitized or juxtaposed with modern pop) clue us into the era. But these otherwise appropriate aspects get betrayed by modernized misdirection. Without a clear sense of 18th-century Parisian “stuffiness” in the cast’s vocal deliveries and physical posturing, the play’s entire premise is undermined. Quips and innuendos of modern American wit have no old-world sensibilities off of which to bounce. There’s no contrast to enhance the sauciness. As a result, the lines are rendered milquetoast by today’s standards instead of whip smart for the 18th century.While performances vary in execution and quality (from overplayed mugging to scoring proper laughs), too many in the cast, like bad Shakespearean actors, are more focused on rhyme and meter than understanding — and portraying — what they’re actually saying. Since modern audiences aren’t accustomed to hearing full works in verse, it’s difficult enough to get into a piece like this. But when it’s likely that even the actors don’t know the fuller plot, or even the meaning of all their particular lines, it makes it harder for the audience to follow — much less enjoy — the play. At one point, a cast member (as if on autopilot) performed to rows of empty seats at the far-end of the theater instead of where ticket holders were actually sitting. Where are they going? I thought. Where is any of this going?

It’s a shame, because I find Theatre 40 charming, if amusingly so. The trickling-in crowd is mostly older. Pre-show, actors in the lobby can be heard on the other side of a folding room divider doing vocal warm-ups. All concessions, lovingly presented, are a buck. (If you wanna get fancy, splurge $2 for espresso.) When they announce that the box office is open, if you don’t stand immediately to get your tickets, a battle-ax theater vet will look you straight in the eyes and repeat said announcement. (And don’t you dare not have your Covid-card ready or think that cup of espresso is making it into the theater, young man.) Doilies and brass tacks — I love it! Even the set for this show (Jeff G. Rack) requires a “painted cardboard cutout” quality which only adds to the adorableness of it all. But plays require that the artists bringing them to life be at least as proficient in their own crafts as the playwright is in theirs. That’s where this all went south. While watching The Metromaniacs, I had two plays warring in my mind: the one I imagined the playwright wrote, and this one.

The Metromaniacs
Theatre 40’s Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 S. Moreno in Beverly Hills
Thurs–Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on August 21, 2022
for tickets ($35), call 310.364.0535 or visit Theatre 40

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