Moliere's 'Tartuffe' is pungent production

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Jan. 21, 2003 at 1:21 PM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Classic actor Brian Bedford has played the title role in Moliere's satiric comedy, "Tartuffe," six times during his long career, but now he has switched to the role of Tartuffe's older patron and dupe, Orgon, in a pungent new Broadway production shaped by Irish-born director Joe Dowling.

The role of the sinister rogue Tartuffe is being taken by Henry Goodman, the British Olivier Award-winning actor best known for his Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice." Only nine months ago, Goodman was fired unceremoniously from the role of another con man, Max Byalistock in Broadway's "The Producers," shortly after he took it over from Nathan Lane.

Maybe a great Max he wasn't, but a wonderful Tartuffe he is, as oilily charismatic a religious charlatan as Moliere could have desired. Goodman has weathered what he has called his "midlife crisis" and come out a winner.

Moliere, whose actual name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, was poking fun at bourgeois gentlemen like Orgon, who probably made their money by shady dealings but were holier-than-thou as the result of being born-again Christians. Written in 1664 for the playwright's own theater company in Paris (Moliere played Orgon), the play is still remarkably funny because both Tartuffe and Orgon are smug hypocritical types who still flourish today.

Bedford is undoubtedly the finest Orgon of our times, a comic with perfect timing and crisp delivery of his lines so essential to period theater. He brings pathos to his performance by showing traces of Orgon's sweetness before he met the Jesuitical Tartuffe and became a petty family tyrant in the name of piety.

The Roundabout Theater Company's production at the American Airlines Theater is Dowling's first major Moliere production in America, where the director settled in 1995 after a career distinguished by his revival of the Abbey Theater, Ireland's national theater and his transformation of Dublin's Gaiety Theater into a house of international renown. He now heads the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

"What different about 'Tartuffe' is that there are very real thematic parts of this play that you could set in 2003 and they'd be right on," Dowling said in an interview. "We haven't done that, but the trick is finding a way of translating the social and stylistic aspects of Moliere's world to a contemporary sensibility - without disturbing the original."

Dowling has successfully mastered this trick. He has kept the comedy's sharp-eyed portrait of its original period while underscoring its universal truths and never lets his cast stoop to buffoonery. He has used the delightfully rhymed iambic pentameter English translation by Richard Wilbur that captures the lilt of Moliere's 12-syllable Alexandrine verse without making the rhyming seem intrusive. It has to be heard to be appreciated.

Orgon as played by Bedford is middle aged and smitten to the brink of physicality with Tartuffe, a youngish hustler who poses as a pious ascetic. He has taken the swindler into his home, promised him the hand of his daughter, and even deeded him his Paris mansion. When Tarfuffe is unmasked in the act of seducing Orgon's young second wife, he retaliates by attempting to have Orgon and his family evicted.

Orgon's plight comes to the attention of the French court and the king himself sets things to rights in a final scene that is nothing less than a obsequious paean to the generosity and wisdom of Louis XIV, Moliere's theatrical patron.

It is a slender story but one peopled with interesting characters such as an aggressively outspoken maidservant, Dorine, who has been known to steal the show. She is played to the hilt in the commedia dell'arte style favored by Moliere by J. Cameron-Smith, one of Broadway's most versatile actresses. She has previously played the role of Elmire, Orgon's wife, with the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Elmire in this production is the adorable actress Kathryn Meisle who is particularly good in the scene in which she encourages Orgon's seduction in the presence of her husband, who is hidden beneath a table. Bryce Dallas Howard makes the most of the underwritten role of Mariane, Orgon's daughter, and Rosaleen Linehan is suitably ferocious as Orgon's puritanical mother who encourages her son's friendship with Tartuffe.

Jeffrey Carlson is nothing more than an animated costume in the role of Valere, a young nobleman in love with Mariane. T.R. Knight is more successful in the role of Orgon's son, Damis, who suffers his father's disapproval. Particularly commanding in a supporting role is John Bedford Lloyd as Orgon's brother-in-law, Cleante, who sees Tartuffe for what he is and helps to bring about his downfall.

When you look at John Lee Beatty's sumptuous settings of the interior of Orgon's home, glowingly lit by Brian MacDevitt, you think of Jan Vermeer and his joy in color and light. Jane Greenwood's costumes look as though they stepped out of portraits by Anthony Van Dyck or Charles Le Brun, and Mark Bennett's original music might have been written for masques at Versailles.

"Tartuffe" has been announced as a limited engagement, due to close Feb. 16.

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