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by Elyse Sommer
A love of heavenly beauty does not preclude
A proper love for earthly pulchritude.

--- Tartuffe, in one of many rhyming lines that showcase Richard Wilbur's forte as a translator. who not only knows his way around a rhyming couplet but how to zero in on exactly right, character evoking words.
Brian Bedford and  Henry Goodman
Brian Bedford as Orgon and Henry Goodman as Tartuffe
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Among all English language dramatic translations, there is less debate, scholarly or otherwise, about Richard Wilbur's work on Molière than just about anything else. His verse translation of Tartuffe, in particular, is precise, classic and yet exceptionally accessible. It is, literally, second to none, and this production's decision to utilize it is as sensible as it is obvious.

The above was written by my colleague Les Gutman four years ago about an outdoor staging of the 17th Century comedy about an unscrupulous impostor (the play's original subtitle) and the man of great wealth and little sense he almost dupes out of freedom and fortune. If Molière could understand English and hear Wilbur's smooth and witty choice of words, he'd no doubt agree that his name deserves its co-author positioning in the Roundabout Theatre Company's program for the latest production of this much produced play. The pleasure of those rhymed couplets top the list of reasons to see yet another Tartuffe.

Worth Street director Jeff Cohen last year had some fun with both Molière and Wilbur by turning it into a 1930s style screwball comedy and adapting Wilbur's rhymes to this vision. Joe Dowling, who helms the Rounabout production, sticks more straightforwardly to the Molière's Louis Quatorze setting and Wilbur's translation.

Adding to the pluses, there's the chance to see Henry Goodman and Brian Bedford play the bamboozler and the bamboozled. Last night's audience applauded Bedford's entrance, and probably do most nights, but by the time Goodman's stringy haired, unctuous pretend man of God comes on stage it is unmarked by applause since we're an hour into the play and it would be almost unseemly. However, while Bedford is a gently endearing Orgon with impeccable line delivery, it's Goodman also (no slouch in handling rhymed text with panache) who brings electricity to the much told tale that's simple enough to sum up in one sentence: The wealthy Orgon is so taken in by phony Tartuffe's phony saintliness that he wants him to be his son-in-law and heir -- until his less guillible wife exposes him as her would-be seducer and some surprise royal intervention undoes his foolish actions.

From his first words, "hang up my hair shirt" to his grimacing defeat, Goodman is greed, lechery and deceit incarnate. His every gesture reveals his baseness -- he doesn't just eat avariciously, but licks his plate; he embarks on his seduction of Elmire (Kathryn Meisle) by gleefully flinging to his back the cross that on his chest should be more shameful than Hester Prynne's letter "A." Goodman is a comic actor who's not afraid to be a bit shticky which is no doubt why he was hired to do his much publicized, ill-fated turn as Max Bialystock in The Producers, a credit he has kept in his program bio.

The large cast, eighteen if you include the servants, maids and guards, contribute performances ranging for so-so to superb. In the latter category, J. Smith Cameron, who plaid Elmire in the 1999 outdoors production, brings the necessary pertness and sass to the part of the outspoken maid Dorine; Kathryn Meisle is charming as Orgon's "trophy wife"; John Beford Lloyd's booming voice invests Cléante, Orgon's brother-in-law, with sincere authority. It pains me to put Jeffrey Carlson in the so-so side of the ledger. I liked him better with each of my three viewings of Edward Albee's The Goat but he is either miscast, misdirected, or both, as an ultra foppish Valère. He's not helped by the costume Jane Greenwood has designed for his on-again-off-again scene with Mariane (Bryce Dallas Howard) -- her major misstep in the otherwise handsomely authentic costumes for the rest of the cast.

The interior and exterior of the Orgon household is designed by John Lee Beatty and, except for a somewhat claustrophobic space for the seduction scene, the sets serve the production well, especially as lit by Brian MacDevitt. A not to be overlooked contribution in terms of stage design comes from sound designer Mark Bennett, whose original music is light and airy. Unfortunately, light and airy are the two adjectives that can't be applied to Mr. Dowling's direction. Too many servants rushing around between scenes, are countered by too much standing around by the actors. In the case of Orgon's hiding under the table as Elmire pretends to be receptive to Tartuffe's advances, Mr. Dowling instead of allowing Bedford to add to the hilarity, keeps him firmly tucked out of sight.

In summary, this isn't the best Tartuffe long-time theater goers are likely to have ever seen but the performances and words by way of Richard Wilbur are enough to make for an enjoyable evening. The production proves that Henry Goodman is indeed capable of being a funny con man. From what I hear from people who've seen him in Guys and Dolls and Follies in London, it's too bad this isn't Tartuffe: The Musical. Maybe next time -- and he should definitely make regular visits to these shores -- he'll sing for us.

Shakespeare In the Park
Tartuffe in London
Worth Street updated adaptation


Written by Moliere, translated by Richard Wilbur
Directed by Joe Dowling
Cas (alphabetical)t: Brian Bedford (Orgon), Henry Goodman (Tartuffe), J. Smith-Cameron (Dorine), Rosaleen Linehan (Mme. Pernelle), Kathryn Meisle (Elmire), T. R. Knight (Damis), Bryce Dallas Howard (Mariane), John Bedford Lloyd (Cléante), Jeffrey Carlson (Valère) and Philip Goodwin (M. Loyal).
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Lighting Design:Brian MacDevitt
Original Music and Sound: Mark Bennett
Hair and Wig Design: Paul HuntleyDialect Coach, Elizabeth Smith;Running time: 2 1/2 hours includes one intermission (at the end of the original 5-act play's 2nd act)
American Airlines Theatre 227 W. 42nd St. 212-719-1300 or
12/06/02-2/23/03; opening 1/09/03.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00PM with a Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2:00PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance.
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