VALLEY WEEKEND : A Crafty, Farcical 'Seduction' Borrows Machiavellian Design : New version of 'The Mandrake' keeps basic plot but removes the original's biting political satire.


Niccolo Machiavelli was a 16th and 17th century Italian political philosopher, best remembered for "The Prince," a book in which Machiavelli describes to a new ruler a prescription for the proper organization of a state and the conduct of its leaders.

When one recalls that both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill wanted to write screenplays, it isn't very surprising that 400 years earlier, political maneuverer Machiavelli wanted to write plays. He did turn out a few, the most memorable being " La Mandragola " (The Mandrake), which appeared in 1524. It was a biting satire on the corruption of contemporary society.

Since then, many translations and adaptations of the play have come and gone, and most of them hold on to the bitter satire of the original, while the authors have also tried to make the piece pertinent to their own day.

Director Malcolm Atterbury Jr. first read the play in college. ("Where else does one read it?" he queried.) Over the years, he had different ideas about a new version, and the final result opens Friday night at Group Repertory Theatre. The final version, a script with the title "The Art of Seduction," is by playwright Craig Alpaugh, and Machiavelli probably wouldn't recognize it.

It is set in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, Atterbury said, going on to explain that all that is actually left of Machiavelli's work is the basic plot, without the political satire. "The biggest thing I was looking for was a sense of silliness, that wasn't spiteful humor, that didn't have one character destroying another in order to make a joke," he said.

"Certainly the people in our version get embarrassed, and are subject to what happens because of their own foibles and feelings. But I think what helps us as we watch this is that we know that everyone's going to be fine in the end."

Alpaugh said he was totally intrigued when Atterbury brought him a first draft a few years ago. Paris and the turn of the century triggered a further thought.

"I told him," Alpaugh recalled, "that if we did it, we might as well do it in the style of Feydeau, the great French farceur , the master of the genre." Atterbury rapidly agreed, and the partners, over several years and numerous readings, finally developed a script that pleased both them and those who attended the readings.

"I was just captivated by the challenge of doing something like this," said Alpaugh, whose comic plays "Bless Me, Father" and "Neighborhood Crime Watch" are popular with theaters across the country.

"It was very challenging. We did stay true to Machiavelli's plot, but other than that it's really almost an original play. A play's flaws are usually in the structure, but of course we had a very strong foundation built in. It was just a matter of elaborating and tweaking it as we went along."

And, Atterbury said, though Machiavelli is not thought of as a great comedy writer, "His original version tried to poke fun at all the conventions of the time--marriage and the church and love."

Alpaugh nodded in agreement, but was quick with an assurance that there is no sex or violence. "But there's a lot of lust and naughtiness, and that kind of stuff," he said, "as you'd expect in a French farce."



* WHAT: "The Art of Seduction."

* WHERE: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Indefinitely.

* HOW MUCH $15.

* PHONE: (818) 769-7529.

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