As Dangerous Liaisons ends—with a specter of the guillotine projected behind aristocrats playing cards—so begins David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette. But historical truth isn’t the point here, which is fitting since the French Queen is best remembered for a mistranslation of an apocryphal story: in Rousseau Confessions, the author refers to a “great princess” who, upon hearing that the peasants had no bread, replied, “Let them eat brioche.” Whether the princess in question was Marie Antoinette (and whether this ever even happened) is doubtful. Thus, when Mr. Adjmi’s Marie (Marin Ireland) says “Oh—my—God” like one of the cast members of Clueless, we quickly realize that this is an emotional and not a factual portrait.
It is also a fascinating portrait. Marie was fourteen when she was shuttled off to wed Louis XVI (Steven Rattazzi), who suffered from phimosis, a rare disease that left him with “healthy erections” but an inability to impregnate his wife until he finally agreed to a circumcision seven years into their marriage. For Mr. Adjmi, these two are spoiled children utterly incapable of ruling a nation—Louis tinkers endlessly with clocks while Marie licks around the edges of pastries and plays bucolic by petting sheep on an ersatz farm Louis has made for her. In one great moment, the two argue over the purpose of windmills, with Louis insisting that they are merely ornamental. “Beauty’s a function,” he tells her didactically. Indeed, it is a wholly unnatural life, dominated by rules whose meanings have long been forgotten and the impossibility of privacy, an idea accentuated by the Soho Rep’s unusually small stage. In these conditions, the uneducated Marie nevertheless manages moments of quiet profundity, as when she sighs, “I feel like a game that other people play but without me,” or when, after the storming of Bastille, her parting words to her husband are, “It’s been nice, Louis.”
Mr. Adjmi’s previous play, 3C, was last year’s most unsung work. Marie Antoinette is not as strong, suffering from some uninspired metatheatrics (the actors change between acts onstage) and a second half that drags a bit. Still, Ms. Ireland is phenomenal in the title role, portraying Marie as petulant and bratty but never unsympathetic. And her relationship with Mr. Rattazzi is heartbreaking; his Louis is the type of man who would always rather be playing with toy trains, and there is a truthful indignation in his performance—he is furious both to be expected to rule the country when he clearly cannot and also to be patronized when he does a poor job.
About halfway through Marie Antoinette, the soon to be deposed Queen mocks herself, recounting that while peasants were screaming about roasting her, she half-heartedly replied, “I feel your pain.” The peasants, in turn, treat her inhumanly (that is, as a symbol of oppression), and when she asks one for understanding, he says, “I don’t have to understand. We will destroy you. Do you understand? You will be eradicated. No one will remember you.” This seems to be the crux of the play, and Mr. Adjmi has performed a not unimpressive feat: Marie Antoinette is ultimately a comedy of misunderstanding in which the playwright evokes empathy—and yes, understanding—for one of Western history’s most battered figures.