BEIRUT: One of the great clichés of human relations is that men, without exception, are unfaithful brutes while women are hardwired to seek monogamy. As a plot premise, this trope works equally well for melodrama and light comedy. French playwright Pierre Chesnot mined the comic seam with his multiply adapted “Un Beau Salaud” (A Handsome Bastard), the play that Atelier Nadine Mokdessi has brought to the boards of Theatre Monnot, in its original French.
The play centers on Francois Dumoulin (Alain Hochar), a comfortably upper-middle class Parisian who, as the play opens, is celebrating his birthday. The first character to stride on stage, his entrance is accompanied by Jacques Dutronc’s “J’aime le filles” (I Love Women) a French pop tune from the late 1960s.
Francois does indeed love women, in his fashion.
For the birthday party his devoted wife Catherine throws for him, the guest list includes a handful of close friends, including Evelyn and her husband and Julie, who happens to have been Francois’ ex-wife.
Addressing the hall in monologue, Francois shares his restlessness with his marriage – despite the fact that he’s had a mistress for 10 years, named Barbara. He yearns to leave his wife, his child and his mistress and run away and start a new life in Australia with his new girlfriend, Marie.
The protagonist tries to justify his bad behavior to his audience.
“I am a man of ill-repute, and I know it,” he admits to his audience straight away, going on to explain how, “when a woman starts to knit, I know the passion has died.”
As he wraps up his introductory speech, the elegantly dressed Catherine (Lea Abi-Nader) and Julie (Joelle Yacoub) enter the Dumoulins’ salon, resuming their chitchat about Francois.
Still a trifle clinging for an ex-wife, Julie expresses her concern about Francois, saying she senses that his attitude has been off lately. Catherine reassures her that everything is just as it should be, and the two women make themselves comfortable – removing knitting needles and balls of yarn from their purses, and exchanging their latest handicraft tips and tricks.
The doorbell rings and a fuchsia-draped Barbara (Elsa al-Hage) enters, promptly introducing herself as Francois’ mistress. She collapses into hysteria, then, explaining that she’s just discovered that Catherine’s husband has been unfaithful to her – Barbara, that is.
Unflappable as a woman accustomed to exchanging knitting tips with Francois’ ex-wife, Catherine tries to console Barbara, assuring her that Francois will eventually come to his senses.
The plot unfolds, one improbable scene after another, with the action interrupted by Francois’ occasional monologues and, at one point, complaints of chest discomfort.
It’s only when the dust settles from the frenzied plot that the audience can be sure of the state of Francois’ fidelity.
The technical facets of Mokdessi’s staging are professional.
The set design of the Dumoulin’s bourgeois Paris salon is convincingly realistic. The female characters’ costumes have been elegantly designed by Souad Chatila, whom some may recognize for dressing such Lebanese celebrities as Fairuz and Majida el-Roumi.
The lighting design is also effective. Whenever Francois drifts into a solipsistic soliloquy, the house lights soften to a yellow hue and the other characters on stage freeze – only returning to realism once he’s done.
As should be evident from the synopsis, “Un Beau Salaud” is no tour de force of high-brow theater on the scale of Bachir Achkar’s stage adaptation of Etel Adnan’s “Sitt-Marie Rose,” which was performed briefly at Masrah Babel last month.
The strongest facet of Mokdessi’s production is Hochar and Hage’s polished comic performances. Chesnot’s plot premise is, as noted, clichéd in the extreme and over the course of its 90-minutes, the plot is funny, albeit in a predictable sort of way.
That said, the opening-night audience seemed highly amused by the broad comedy of “Salaud,” with explosions of laughter resonating through the theater. Making a roomful of people laugh as one is an accomplishment not to be sniffed at.
The biggest laugh comes as Hochar hangs up on his latest prospect and utters the final line of the play – “Les hommes sont tous des salauds” (All men are bastards) – which serves as a cue for Belgian pop star Stromae’s tune “Tous les memes” (We’re All the Same).
Based on this reception, “Un Beau Salaud” will likely charm Beirut theatergoers looking for a bit of light comic diversion.
It’s all in aid of a good cause too.
Staged since 1993, Mokdessi’s yearly theatrical events have collected all in all over a million dollars worth of charity donations. This year’s proceeds, it’s been promised, will go to Lebanese Down Syndrome Association, Institut de re-eduction audio-phonetique and Restaurants du Cœur, whose members help feed the homeless.
“Un Beau Salaud” runs through June 16 at Theatre Monnot. Tickets are on sale at Librarie Antoine.