The very dark, very French, bourgeois and bohemian family playground of Jean Cocteau’s brilliant Les Parents Terribles, here entitled Indiscretions, is a savory death-match of revenge, calculation, incestuous leanings, blind innocence, ennui, high drama and a healthy serving of laughs, cringes and schadenfreude for the hungry audience.
Reviewed by Lyssa Mandel
Freud would have a field day. The very dark, very French, bourgeois and bohemian family playground of Jean Cocteau’s brilliant Les Parents Terribles, entitled Indiscretions in this sharp Jeremy Sams translation (presented by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble), is a savory death-match of revenge, calculation, incestuous leanings, blind innocence, ennui, high drama and a healthy serving of laughs, cringes and schadenfreude for the hungry audience.
Cocteau’s conniving characters comprise a family whose neuroses feed upon each other to alarming but fascinating effect. Matriarch Yvonne is a self-dramatizing, languid whiner of a woman; her husband, George, colludes with her indulgence by being a distant wuss. He’s been displaced in his wife’s affections by his own son, the 22-year-old, sweetly naive man-child Michael, who falls into the arms of his mother and gives her the attention fix she needs (without realizing how disturbingly Oedipal it is). Orbiting the realm of middle-class slovenliness is Yvonne’s sister--the cunning, tidy, and jilted Leo--who has by default been relegated to housekeeper as the only functioning adult among them.
The household status quo (one can hardly call it “order”) is upset when Michael returns home from a night out and announces he’s fallen in love with a girl, Madeleine. Yvonne is thrown into a tantrum over this so-called betrayal. George discovers with dismay that he’s been having an affair with the same Madeleine his son is after. Leo, in the interest of preventing a family implosion, helps strategize a way to break up the young lovebirds.
As you might imagine from the soap-opera circumstances, calamity ensues. But thanks to Cocteau’s complex and nuanced script and the actors’ tenacious and serious commitment to their characters, Indiscretions cuts remarkably deep, going much further than the easy laughs of bad melodrama. The Sams translation brings not only clarity and naturalness but also a quintessentially European sensibility to the text without ever going overboard. Director Jonathan Silverstein tackles the dense, shocking comedy with fluidity and admirable balance. Even the heightened affectation of Mid-Atlantic speech and grandiose gestures favored by Yvonne and Leo are made to work: ridiculousness suits these characters, and in the mouths of such able performers, the pitiful disaster of these shabby-chic lives shoots straight to the gut.
Melissa Miller imbues the charming Madeleine with gentle fervor and steadfast love, and William Connell makes for a puppy-like Michael. Gayton Scott’s Yvonne is a flailing force of nature, convincingly undone by her obsession with her only son. Scott’s portrayal brings moments of sympathy to a generally preposterous character. As George, Dan Cordle is ever-defeated and defenseless in the face of his steamroller wife. And Jan Leslie Harding’s Leo has a quietly boiling ferocity that allows her iciness to melt at crucial moments with slow, measured flourishes.
The central theme is that les parents are, naturally, children themselves. The characters and performances are sweeping and larger than life--suited to the play, yet still truthful. In Cocteau’s alternate universe, cruel and complicated equate to delicious and ultimately satisfying.
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