Friday, January 28, 2011

Immodest Masterpiece

McNall and Brookshire in The Misanthrope (photo by Jacob J. Goldberg)

The Misanthrope
A play by Moliere
Translated by Richard Wilbur
Directed by Joseph Hanreddy
Starring Dominic Cuskern, Sean McNall, Matthew Amendt, Janie Brookshire, Shawn Fagan, Patrick Halley, Robin LeMon, Kern McFadden, Joey Parsons

Performances through February 20, 2011
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street

If Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest—now on Broadway in an amusing production directed by and starring Brian Bedford—is the funniest play in the English language, the Pearl Theatre Company’s current staging of The Misanthrope reminds us there’s another contender for that mantle: Richard Wilbur’s translation, which is as scintillating, playful and uproarious as Moliere’s French original.

This drolly immodest 17th century comedy about Alceste, so incensed by the hypocrisy of human nature that he cannot curb his tongue against anyone’s foolishness, is a masterpiece of ambiguity: are we laughing with Alceste against mankind’s folly or at him for his superciliousness? Moliere lets us do both.

Joseph Hanreddy’s modest staging—which gains added mileage from Harry Feiner’s simple, effective set design and Sam Fleming’s elaborate but not overdone period costumes—neatly encapsulates Moliere’s dry wit and universal insight into human nature, both examples of a comedic genius approaching Shakespeare.

Sean McNall smartly plays Alceste as hero and buffoon (although Hanreddy missteps by letting him crawl on all fours, not once but twice!), while Janie Brookshire is a delectable Célimène, the beautiful young widow who tests Alceste’s thesis about his age’s frivolous ways. Shawn Fagan is a perfect foil as Alceste’s friend Philinte, and if Kern MacFadden is a too doltish Oronte—whom Alceste insults by criticizing his sonnet—Matthew Amendt and Patrick Halley stop just short of camp as the dandies, Acaste and Clitandre.

Much of Moliere’s play consists of two or more characters declaiming witticisms in rhymed verse, but instead of bogging down in trite talk, conversation itself becomes dazzling action. The Pearl’s solid cast does well by Wilbur’s masterly translation, which ends with couplets worthy of the French master himself, making the greatness of The Misanthrope as much his glory as Moliere’s.

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