The Discreet Charm of a Programmed Farce

Jean-Claude Carrière, the distinguished author of La Terrasse –a typical French farce about a typical New York obsession, apartment hunting–is a dramatist who needs masters.

He is at his storytelling best as the longtime collaborator of Peter Brook and Luis Buñuel. Mr. Carrière has written only four original plays. But he wrote six of Buñuel’s films, including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Belle de Jour . And he’s functioned as Mr. Brook’s writer in residence for more than 20 years, creating brilliant adaptations of Carmen and the epic The Mahabarata , among others. In that collaborative sense, as Mel Gussow pointed out, he’s the servant of two masters–of Buñuel and Brook, a pedigree that seductively combines surreal eroticism with ritual myth.

Mr. Carrière’s master in La Terrasse is the absurdist spirit of Ionesco (if we discount the noble tradition of French farce with a touch of Sartre). Only a French dramatist would see demeaningly mundane apartment hunting as a philosophical, existential comedy, but don’t let that worry us for the moment. Mr. Carrière’s romp (with serious undertones) couldn’t be more cheerfully accessible. It’s the director Mike Ockrent’s strange lack of relish for the infectious anarchy of true farce–as opposed to its mild imitation–that troubles me.

Yet the production at Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage II, which others have enjoyed, began with a promising rush of air on a muggy Manhattan night. The show literally begins with a gale-force wind blowing over the audience like a mistral signaling madness in the air.

And Mr. Carrière’s story couldn’t have intrigued us more from the outset. A young couple is finishing lunch in their Paris apartment. Madeleine (Sarah Knowlton) tells her lover Étienne (Jeremy Davidson) that she’s going out. All seems well. He asks her casually when she’ll be back. To which Madeleine replies, Never! She sweetly adds in the nonchalant style of a Parisienne going shopping that the apartment is already on the rental market.

So the serious comedy–or knockabout farce–gets under way, with Étienne looking as if he’s been hit over the head with a hammer (a dull expression, which, alas, the concussed Mr. Davidson never varies). Before Madeleine can leave for the Other Man (a character), who’s expected any minute, the treasured apartment is invaded by a bogus businessman (David Schramm), who aggressively treats the place as his own; a suicidal intellectual romantic (Bruce Norris), who falls instantly in love with Madeleine; a near-blind general (Tom Aldredge) nearly bumping into the furniture, who’s pushed off the rooftop terrace by his long-suffering wife (Margaret Hall); and, of course, a perky real estate agent (Annie Golden) who’s secretly in search of love and probably an apartment, too.

All good farce is about stereotypes made uproarious, and Mr. Carrière has mixed the ingredients well. The French existentialist within him kicks it up a notch with a little philosophy concerning Rootless Man (another character), urban prisoners, or nomads in search of freedom (and real estate). The Ionesco influence is in its symbolic, increasingly out of control, darkly ominous, rooftop terrace. The millennium and the apocalypse approacheth! And absurd things happen up there: You can jump off the terrace, but you will live to jump off it another day.

If only Mr. Ockrent, the director best known for such sunny musicals as Crazy for You and Me and My Girl , had let his insane gale-force wind blow through the entire production. It is all too careful, and the anarchic spirit of farce is absent too much. A clue to the wrong approach is in Santo Loquasto’s characterless set. It’s beige on beige. Bland beige tires our eyes; it’s neutral; and the Paris apartment could be anywhere.

The comedy is programmed, even overserious. Only Ms. Golden as the needy real estate agent seems to possess a spontaneously natural comic flair. We see the others working unstylishly too hard for their laughs–including the evening’s one purely farcical moment when the suicidal intellectual seems to be caught in a staircase hanging upside down as the set collapses.

But the cautious Mr. Ockrent isn’t inspired enough. One character jumps off the rooftop terrace; the other is pushed. But each one reappears with the same visual gag: torn clothes with tree branches sticking out of them. It’s O.K., I guess. But what if one reappeared with a tattered Sabrett’s hot dog umbrella up his bum and the other had a dead dachshund stuck to his head? Well, that just might be closer to the nutty, farcical spirit of the thing.

Nor is there any troubling atmosphere of Mr. Carrière’s surrounding apocalypse. The mistral subsides, whereas it ought to become a maelstrom. The branch of a tree that crashes into the apartment ought to be the tree itself.

In Simon McBurney’s fine, recent production of Eugène Ionesco’s Chairs , the door ultimately opened onto blinding light and the theater itself seemed to shudder in fearful anticipation. Who–or what–would enter? (It could only be God, no less.) But when the door of the terrace ultimately opens on the apocalyptic anarchy of the outside world in Mr. Ockrent’s production of La Terrasse , we feel little, or nothing. It just opens–onto what? Not a world gone absurdly mad, but the wings of a theater. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

So I think an opportunity has been lost with a rare original play by Jean-Claude Carrière. Perhaps he’ll write another. I used to know this charming Frenchman, and years ago he told me such a good, true story that I encouraged him to turn it into a play. We were talking about “tributes,” or ” hommages ,” or polite rip-offs when one artist “borrows” from another. Andrew Lloyd Webber famously pays tribute to Puccini, for example, or Mike Bidlo appropriates Jackson Pollock and Picasso as his own. Here’s the true story Mr. Carrière told me:

He has stolen from other artists, but for honorable motives. He stole the bathroom in his Paris home from Buñuel’s film That Obscure Object of Desire .

To be precise, he stole hundreds of beautiful tiles from the set of the movie, which he wrote. The tiles that became his obsession had been especially imported from Madrid by Buñuel. They were impossible to buy in France. Va-et-vient , as the French say, “come and go.” It took Mr. Carrière five secret trips in the dead of night to “borrow” the tiles. We can still see them in fantasy–in Buñuel’s film. And Mr. Carrière can see them in reality–in his bathroom.

Why did he do it? He liked the tiles, of course. But that isn’t why. He took them as an act of perverse revenge.

In younger days, when Mr. Carrière began making films in Paris, he was always loaning his possessions to filmmakers–family heirlooms, furniture, clothes. But he could never get his things back. His possessions exist only in fictional eternity in the films. The films had “appropriated” them.

Then, one day, a friend of his, the great actor Michel Piccoli, was looking for a location to shoot a film. Mr. Carrière was leaving Paris for a while and lent his apartment to his friend. On his return, he went to see the film that had been shot there.

And in his bed on screen, Mr. Piccoli was making love to a beautiful actress Mr. Carrière knew well. To his own shock, he became insane with jealousy. His friend–and more to the point, the film itself–had stolen his apartment, his bed, the girl and, it seemed, his life.

He recovered! But as the years went by, he plotted his revenge for everything that movies had “borrowed” from him in the past. And so, he reclaimed the bathroom from fantasy to reality.

It was a true Carrière story of the Theater of the Absurd, of erotic jealousy and art, of the point where fantasy and reality collide and cannot be separated, when obscure objects are desired.

The Discreet Charm of a Programmed Farce