Waiting for the Soufflé to Rise in Stage West’s The Heir Apparent

The first sound you hear in Stage West’s production of The Heir Apparent is a tremendous fart. That could serve as commentary on the rest of the play.

Playwright David Ives’ flatulent adaptation of a fluffy 18th century French comedy is written in rhyming couplets. All of it. Hours of it.

Dr. Seuss wrote great rhyming couplets. To wit, this witty one from How the Grinch Stole Christmas: “‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!’”

Ives struggles for rhymes, trying to force “Crimea” to rhyme with “diarrhea.” Not gonna happen. Nor is “dowager/Howitzer.” “Eff you” and “nephew” are about as good as he gets.

If a whole two-act comedy is spoken in verse, the rhymes had better be built around a plot that’s knee-slapping hilarious and the actors had better be ready to rap. The Heir Apparent’s farcical storyline is instead a moldy too-oldie, done in fancy period costumes, about greedy relatives waiting for a miserly uncle to die so they can split his fortune. The uncle, Geronte, played by a near-comatose Jim Covault, is a filthy rich hypochondriac in a dirty nightgown and mangy wig, always on the edge of death but never quite dead enough. (Original playwright Jean-François Regnard lifted ideas from Molière’s The Miser and The Imaginary Invalid.)

Nephew Eraste (Jesse Elgene) conspires with Geronte’s servants (Jeff Wittekiend, Taylor Whitworth) to hasten the old man’s demise, but he proves hard to kill. Plan B is to impersonate Geronte to his height-challenged lawyer, Scruple (Randy Pearlman, scooting around on his knees), as he draws up a new will leaving generous bequests to the conspirators. Eraste’s young girlfriend Isabelle (Lucy Given) and her elderly chaperone (Judy Keith) get mixed up in the mix-ups when Geronte, still not a corpse, rises from his deathbed to announce that he wants to marry Isabelle. To which his maid says, “Monsieur, if Satan’s tempted you to wed/Pick someone apropos — like someone dead.”

To succeed, the elements of farce — quick exits and entrances, mistaken identities, broad acting, slapstick, bawdy sex talk — have to blend like the ingredients in a soufflé. Leave something out, or use too much of it, and the whole thing falls flat.

Where Stage West’s Heir Apparent fizzles starts with Covault, whose pale, expressionless face and slow manner of speech aren’t suited to fast-moving comedy. (He also blew a lot of lines opening night. In rhyming dialogue, any screw-ups are obvious.) The younger members of the cast, all TCU students (the show is a co-production with Theatre TCU), work themselves into a froth trying to goose some laughs into otherwise mirthless scenes with Covault by mugging their cheeks off and gamboling over the furniture. But director Krista Scott, in her first production at Stage West, hasn’t whipped up any interesting shtick for the actors to do. Sometimes they just stand around looking confused.

There’s a lot of palaver about bowel movements and other gross scatological matters in The Heir Apparent. That fart sound comes from a much-referenced chiming clock on the mantel on the daintily furnished set (designed by Covault). Or it’s supposed to. It didn’t work all that well on opening night. Like the rest of the production, it seemed constipated.

The Heir Apparent continues through December 13 (not on November 26) at Stage West, 821 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth. Tickets
$31-$35 at 817-784-9378;