The Colony Studio Theatre is staging a liaison dangereuse of its own called “Stendahl,” which silkenly blends the character of the entitled 19th-Century French novelist with the plot of his famous book, “The Red and the Black.”
Literati will remember that the novel’s hypocritical protagonist, Julian Sorel, was a contradictory, insensitive, Napoleonic fanatic who used the church for his own gain and slept with his benefactors’ wives.
Playwright Hoyt Hilsman, wisely, is not a slave to the book. He takes playful license, cleverly projecting his play as endearing comedy flecked with romantic and political idealism.
Hilsman also turns the Sorel character back into the young man whose real-life scandal served as Stendahl’s artistic inspiration. That true-life model was one Antoine Berthet (the protagonist in the play), a young seminarian whose trial for sexual and political impropriety made sensational headlines in 1829 Paris. (The playwright found and translated the original French newspaper accounts of the trial.)
The resulting production under director Randal Hoey is surprisingly piquant. It is framed by Stendahl himself (a lovable and rakish performance by John Apicella) as he infectiously recounts a tale of comedic and tragic misfortune to a lady friend. These snatches of story telling rapidly segue to the drama’s dangerous affairs of the heart and the body politic.
Kent Stoddard is sweetly anguished as the ascetic-looking hero, a seminary student who tutors for a boorish village mayor and has an unbridled love affair with the mayor’s young wife (a passionate, dim-headed woman played with flair by Lindy Nisbet).
Their darting dalliances under the mayor’s nose are played like tintypes. The veneer is lightly farcical. This buoyancy is also reflected in a foppish Abbe (Don Woodruff) who would dearly love to go to bed with the bedeviled hero himself and in the amusing waiter/monk/prison guard characters (multiple panache by Vince Acosta).
The play enjoys a lean, half-dream look. But it’s clearly anchored in the dying days of the Bourbon Restoration--in its period costumes (designed by Sherry Linnell), its spare artful props (notice scenic designer Thomas Buderwitz’s unfurled red scarf of a bloody execution), and in the moody lighting (by Bob Heller). Music composed and performed by Eric Allaman is a rich aural complement.
At 1944 Riverside Drive; Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m. ; Sundays, 7 p.m. ; matinees Nov. 6 and Nov. 13, at 2 p.m. ; through Nov. 20. Tickets: $12-$15. (213) 665-3011.