A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
Martin Crimp evinces no such difficulty in his playful new version, currently enjoying a slick, sassy production at Classic Stage Company. CSC is in the business of creating "theater that looks forward by looking back." Its mission is to bring new life to old stories so that audiences of all "ages and backgrounds. . .can understand in vivid new ways the rich resonances of the human experience over time" In the assured and yet free-spirited hands of its new Artistic Director, Barry Edelstein, of The Misanthrope, we can say, mission accomplished.
This production gives plenty to look at. The striking, sparely furnished hotel room is filled with hyper-stylishly dressed denizens of Crimp's London. In the finale the room is adorned with chandeliers and candles as Louis XIV-costumed revelers dance the night away to the Pet Shop Boys. Throughout, a huge grided mirror hovers obliquely over the action, cleverly broadening the stage's reach and creating, ultimately, its own Versailles.
Molière's 17th Century misanthrope, Alceste, inhabits the Parisian salon of Célimène, a smart, beautiful bitch of a younger woman with whom he is in love. Crimp has transported Alceste (Roger Rees) across the channel and up three centuries; his young beloved has been transformed into the unreformed Jennifer (Uma Thurman). Of what calls itself humankind, Alceste is contemptuous. He is disgusted by a society that tells the truth only when the subject's back is turned, and is determined to speak to everyone he meets with uninvited candor. Cèliméne/Jennifer is determined to sleep with most of the same people.
Alceste's uncompromising ways get him into trouble when he criticizes the work of Covington (Nick Wyman). Crimp's Alceste is a prominent playwright. Covington is a critic who has written a play. He seeks little more than a little pat on the back from Alceste. Fat chance. Alceste's honesty prompts a lawsuit from Covington. For her part, Jennifer (a movie star) gets in trouble too when she responds to Covington's romantic advances.
Crimp has obvious fun treating the original play like a treasure chest, taking as much of it as he wants and leaving the rest behind. He retains the essence of Molière in both form and substance: it remains a verse play (although Crimp's couplets have only a fleeting elegance and Barry Edelstein has permitted his actors to run over them at will); and the fundamental tensions and temperaments, for all the meddling, remain remarkably intact. (We still want to feel for the heroic hypocrite, Alceste, but our impulse is to laugh at him instead.)
He also takes delight in poking fun at his own post-modern deconstruction. When Jennifer leaves Alceste alone with Marcia (Mary Lou Rosato), an acting teacher who would make Alceste a more suitable lover, she interrupts a discomfiting pause by reflecting, "In the old days this is where I would wait for my carriage/While we talk about love and marriage." Describing precisely Molière's Act III, Scene 5.
Crimp's media-age royalty prove to be just as silly and at least as hypocritical as Molière's courtiers. And Crimp even seems to align himself with Alceste as he not-so-subtly levels his own contemporaries (Hare, Ayckbourne and Lloyd Webber) and then, just before the intermission, has one of his characters turn to the audience and inquire, "Is it legal to use real people's names like that?"
The real buzz about this show, which no doubt accounts for its near sell-out status and extension prior-to-opening, is based on the casting. Edelstein has used a real movie star (with virtually no stage experience), Uma Thurman, as Crimp's concocted one -- a difficult job made nearly insurmountable by positioning her opposite a very accomplished stage actor, Rees. So the question is, how does the match-up fare?
Thurman certainly looks the part, and provides a plausible enough presence to explain what might cause Alceste to behave so out-of-character. Her early line readings do not bode well. She comes across anemic and lacking in conviction at first but by her confrontation scene with Alceste redeems herself and validates her celebrity. It's not clear where the supposedly American Jennifer gets the accent Thurman affects; things would improve if she would lose it. Regardless, she is able to capture the essence of a woman who can attract the attention of men, distract them from their moorings and exploit their attention sufficiently to gain entry to what life has to offer, unimpaired by any sense of devotion. And that's what counts.
Rees hits his marks with near-perfection. He finds Alceste's sense of nobility without cluttering it with pomposity. He lets irony find its own home, executing Alceste's passions and incongruent emotions as he finds them. No matter how few of the show's tickets may have been sold on his account, he is its true and guiding star.
Of the remainder of the cast, Nick Wyman is fine in his portrayal of the over-cooked Covington, and Mary Lou Rosato is delicious as Marcia. Michael Emerson finds a resonant albeit singular voice for Alceste's more politic friend, John, but has brought a bit much of his Oscar Wilde (from last season's much-applauded Gross Indecency) along with him. The cast also includes two fine stereotypes, Alexander, the agent (John Gould Rubin) and Julian, an actor (Seth Gilliam).
Adina Porter falls victim to the play's most strained transition, portraying Ellen, a "tell-all" journalist of confounding cross-motivation. Meant to define a media-frenzied world with which we are all quite familiar, and to reflect on the underbelly of the hypocrisy Alceste excoriates and embraces, this never amounts to much more than a thinly-drawn diversion. Porter, for all her effort to the contrary, can't accomplish much with it.
Edelstein and his creative team have engineered an exuberant crazy-quilt that is thoughtful and yet never serious. Misanthrope is a comedy, yes, but much of what transpires is decidedly tragic. This version has a foot planted firmly in two periods, 300 years apart. Here we find a room to accommodate all. While Crimp's Misanthrope isn't likely to have the staying power of the original, it does have its own power. While there are those who will pine for the genuine article, this one should not be overlooked.
REVIEWS OF SHOWS MENTIONED ABOVE
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
Attention is also directed to:
CurtainUp feature on translations
CurtainUp interview with James Magruder, discussing the adaptation and translation of (especially French) plays
CurtainUp review of Martin Crimp's last adaptation to be staged in NY, Ionesco's The Chairs
CurtainUp review of another French verse play, this one by an enemy of Molière, Lovers and Executioners