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Highly engaging low farce in 'The Heir Apparent' at ICT

Struggles over inheritance are always painful -- unless, of course, they take place in a French farce, in which case they are endlessly prankish and ribald.

In 2011, "Venus in Fur" playwright David Ives "transladapted" (his coinage, combining "translation" and "adaptation") a play originally called "Le Legataire Universal," by the forgotten French playwright Jean-Francois Regnard. Matt Walker of Los Angeles' beloved Troubadour Theater Company directs the Los Angeles premiere of Ives' update, "The Heir Apparent," at International City Theatre in Long Beach.

The play was first performed in 1708. Regnard rose to fame after the death of Moliere, who cast a powerful influence over him -- and wrote in rhyming couplets, which Ives has recreated in English.

That description may summon a lofty, remote dramatic landscape, but farce from this era remains startlingly relevant 300 years later, in part because it focuses on the lowest common denominators of human experience: greed, lust and digestion. The dialogue abounds with erection and diarrhea jokes and flatulent noises for which an 8-year-old would be sharply reprimanded.

"This is so ... inappropriate," a woman complained at intermission. Her companion replied, "That's farce!"

The characters and story are direct descendants of commedia del arte. A decrepit miser, Geronte (Matthew Henerson), uncivilly insists on remaining alive even though his nephew, Eraste (Wallace Angus Bruce), would very much like to inherit his fortune. Eraste is in love with the beautiful Isabelle (Suzanne Jolie Narbonne), whose greedy mother, Madame Argante (Rebecca Spencer), wants to sell her hand to the highest bidder.

Geronte and Eraste have a saucy, clever servant each: Lisette (Paige Lindsey White) and Crispin (Adam J. Smith), who are in love with each other and eager to smooth the path for Eraste and Isabelle.

When Geronte abruptly decides, as cranky old misers will, to leave his money to two distant relatives, Crispin dresses up like each, in turn, and portrays them as craven, insincere opportunists.

Events take another alarming turn when Geronte decides to marry Isabelle himself, then get even worse when he abruptly dies before writing his will. But perhaps all is not lost. A tiny lawyer, Scruple (Adam von Almen, walking on his knees), is waiting outside, and Crispin is very good at impersonation.

It all promises screeching hilarity, but the production feels disappointingly heavy and lumbering at first. It takes a while for the ear to get used to Ives' verse, which is clever and knotty and peppered with anachronisms in our own patois, like "soccer mom."

Athough the performers try to speak with spontaneity and ease, the complicated rhythm and grammar get in their way, often making them sound stilted.

The performance style is also highly mannered. The actors pause and turn to the audience for reactions, accompanied by comic sound effects such as slide whistles (by sound designer Mark McClain Wilson); they don't always appear comfortable with the physical demands of the genre. Perhaps as a result, the pacing feels halting. Jokes fall flat.

By the second act, however, many of these distractions fade: The ear tunes itself to the verse, and the performers relax into their ever-more-ridiculous high-jinks as the laughs and the plot twists (many added to the original by Ives) begin to cascade.

The performers, particularly Smith as Crispin, find their timing and their stride. This ambitious production boasts a gorgeous set by Christopher Scott Murillo glowingly lit by Jeremy Pivnick, and pretty period costumes by Kim DeShazo. It has all the ingredients for success; it may just need to cook a bit longer before it achieves perfection.

"The Heir Apparent," International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 12. $46-$48. (562) 436-4610 or www.InternationalCityTheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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