Maybe the only wrong time to present Moliere’s 1666 play The Misanthrope was in its own, where it offended the court of Louis XIV. Today, considered a masterpiece, it’s still an affront to power (let me know if it doesn’t remind you of all the B.S. in your own office politics), it’s still a brilliant exposure of the human condition–it still speaks directly to the times (but be careful if you give a ticket for the Pearl Theatre Company’s new production to your boss). Their work is solid, without taking much interpretive liberty (if you’ve never seen the play or know students or people interested in learning the classic dramatic repertoire, by all means, see this Misanthrope before the production closes on February 20 at New York City Center Stage II). The playwright is examining something your six-year-old will want to discuss with you; it’s something you may have to negotiate for the rest of your life from a cubicle: when to tell the truth, how much to tell, and in what manner. Its leading character, Alceste, would either make his mark or be destroyed in corporate culture: As the critic Inge Dam describes him, “[He’s] one whose “noble outlook on life clashes decisively with the mendacity of society. Like a young Hamlet, he is puzzled by the smiling villains who surround him.” Lise-Lone Marker and Frederick J. Marker saw Alceste’s “disillusioned vision of the world as a jungle in which right is systematically overthrown and justice perverted, in which intrigue and self-interest alone govern and human intercourse is mere sham and make believe.”
Naturally, Moliere has Alceste fall in love with someone in many ways his opposite: the twenty-year-old coquette, Celimene. Harold Clurman tells us, Alceste, in the original production, was actually played by Moliere, who was forty. “In the seventeenth century,” Clurman states, “a man of [this age] was considered older than we [see] a man past sixty today. . . . and Moliere’s own wife 'exactly half his age' played Celimene. Their marriage was far from calm: she was . . . probably unfaithful. Moliere [however] was no more capable of leaving her, than Alceste, till the very end. . . .” Their pairing “was regarded as in itself ridiculous.” Finding an analogous proposition is a place where, I think, the Pearl’s show can be bolder—not that Alceste must always be played comically. According to critic Harald Engberg, Max von Sydow portrayed him as one of John Osborne’s angry young men: “an aggressive and demanding personality with a hopeless love-hatred of the circle in which he moves, a pathetic figure among the fools of his time, who wins our sympathy precisely because he does not try to but, on the contrary, does all he can to fend it off.” Obie winner Sean McNall, who plays Alceste at the Pearl, has an open, natural, youngish, persona (he played the Tennessee Williams stand-in in Vieux Carre in 2009, where he drew on Williams’s own inflections and dialect); his demeanor may be too gentle (Alceste may not like the court, but he has survived there, so it would be interesting to understand more regarding how he swims with the sharks). We don’t feel his rage about to boil over from the start in U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur’s winning and playful translation—this may be a staging issue. Actually, I wish this production could have been delayed a bit, I would have liked to see how McNall would have factored in incoming news because I think we are seeing an Alceste on the world stage at the moment in Julian Assange (Philinte, Alceste’s best—and maybe only–friend asks him, “Wouldn’t the social fabric come undone if we were wholly frank with one another?”).
McNall is tolerant with his girlfriend Celimene (Janie Brookshire) swathed in Sam Fleming’s striking red costume—but, you know, Moliere isn’t really asking us to agree that “girls always win.” He’s harsh with Celimene, the play treacherous (and she was smart in not telling truths she was astutely aware of). As Ingmar Bergman explained, “The worst and most dangerous thing that can happen [in the court] is to fall into disfavor with the king and to cease to belong to the ruling class. This can happen by saying the wrong thing, by not having the right emotions, by having any emotions at all. . . . All watch one another, spy on one another, but at the same time smile to one another, pay perpetual compliments to one another. . . . One can cry, provided they’re crocodile tears.”
Harry Feiner’s set is economical, justifiably made up of mirror and glass; other young, talented players include Kern McFadden, Dominic Cuskern, Patrick Halley, and Matthew Amendt sharpening their claws, as well as Robin LeMon and Joey Parsons. The direction is by Joseph Hanreddy. What struck me about the play–and where a point really hit me—was that no matter how people choose to survive, even as they consider what the best and most reasonable ways should be, they, too, will be judged and probably condemned. Thank God the Pearl is giving us the classics. And now let us praise them for their services to the arts: On Monday, May 2, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley will perform a one-night cabaret to benefit The Pearl’s resident artist ensemble at B.B. King Blues Club; for more information, contact Julie Griffith at 212-505-3401.
© 2011 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photo © by Jacob J. Goldberg. From L to R: Sean McNall (Alceste) and Janie Brookshire (Célimène).
Translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur
Directed Joseph Hanreddy
Running: January 14 – February 20, 2011
What’s worse than being the only (self-proclaimed) honest man in a world of liars, gossips, and fools? Being head-over-heels in love with the chief offender among them. THE MISANTHROPE follows the hilariously thorny love-life of the irascible Alceste and the coquettish Célimène, who put the concept of “opposites attract” to the ultimate test. Richard Wilbur’s masterful translation of Molière’s wryly personal comedy begs the question—can love really be this blind?
All evening performances begin at 7:30pm
Evening performances will finish at approximately 9:35pm
All matinee performances begin at 2:30pm
Matinee performances will finish at approximately 4:35pm
Major support for The Misanthrope has been provided by:
The Florence Gould
Visit the Pearl Theatre Company Web site: http://www.pearltheatre.org/index.php