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Theatre in Review: The Misanthrope (Molière in the Park/LeFrak Center)

Margaret Ivey, Gabriel Ebert. Photo: Courtesy of Molière in the Park

New York's outdoor theatre season begins with Lucie Tiberghien's delightful revival of what may be Molière's greatest comedy. Gabriel Ebert, a skilled caricaturist, is in fine form as the title character, Alceste, who, at bay in a society populated by fashionistas, fops, and fools -- all of them skilled liars -- sticks rigorously to his policy of straight talking and plain dealing. It's a policy he pursues to a fault, creating endless trouble and sowing havoc in his personal life. "I am, I fear, inclined to be unfashionably sincere," he says, and that's putting it mildly.

In dealing with friends and foes alike, Alceste takes a scorched-earth approach: "All are corrupt, there's nothing to be seen/In court or town but aggravates my spleen." (The production uses Richard Wilbur's glittering adaptation.) Indeed, Ebert appears stiffened with choler; when asked to comment on an acquaintance's mind-numbingly banal attempts at versification, he doubles over in agony. At one point, he lies down on the floor, as if wishing away the whole rotten world. Alceste is a tricky character -- his disdain for everyone could become wearying - but Ebert applies the right degree of comic stylization without trivializing him. He makes Alceste both genuinely pitiable and a figure of fun.

Then again, as Molière makes clear, Alceste isn't entirely incorrect in his assessment of the Parisian beau monde. They're a fully clawed pack of frenemies, indulging in festivals of air kissing and ulterior sentiment, yet skilled in the arts of gossip and backbiting. It is Alceste's peculiar agony to be in love with "the flighty Célimène...whose brittle malice and coquettish ways/So typify the manners of our days." (The words are spoken by Philinte, Alceste's frequently exasperated confidante.) As played by Maechi Aharanwa, Célimène is curvaceous, glamorous, and utterly entitled; she also defends her flirtatious ways like a practiced jurist: "Is it my fault that all these men pursue me? Am I to blame if they're attracted to me? And when they gently beg an audience/Ought I to take a sick and drive them hence?" Well, when you put it that way...

And when she gathers her court of admirers for some conversation, Célimène's expert knifing of those not in attendance results in considerable carnage. (Striking a pose of false sympathy, she says of another, "I hate to see him sweat and struggle so/To fill his conversation with bons mots.") Yet, in dealing with her profoundly mixed-up lover, one must admit she has a point. When Alceste complains, "Words can't describe the nature of my passions/And no man ever loved in such a fashion," she replies, "Yes, it's a brand-new fashion, I agree/You show your love by castigating me." Aharanwa is a formidable presence; it's easy to see why Ebert's Alceste is equally beguiled by her wit and confounded by her slippery ways.

Can this misalliance be saved? Before arriving at a conclusion that spares practically no one, Molière amusingly rakes his characters over the coals of their dishonesty. And Tiberghien's ensemble brings these frothy-minded social butterflies to highly amusing life. Janie Brookshire is an assured Clitandre, the group's most enthusiastic gossipmonger. Chris Henry Coffey earns his share of laughs as Oronte, the would-be poet whose latest effort is scathingly taken down by Alceste. As the self-adoring Acaste, Nate Miller announces, "I'm clever, handsome, gracefully polite/My waist is small, my teeth are strong and white," pausing to glare at any audience member who dares to contradict him. Kate Siahaan Rigg is the chic, disapproving Arsinoé, handing out moral criticisms and stroking Alceste's chest with equal fervor; her verbal catfight with Célimène is one of the production's highlights. Tiberghien adds a mildly gender-fluid touch, casting Margaret Ivey in the male role of Philinte, who falls for the charming Eliante (Danaya Esperanza); they form the play's sole union of right-thinking lovers.

The production is sensibly designed, with Teresa Williams' set placing the audience on four sides of the stage, a king-size bed placed in the center. Stoli Stolnack's solid lighting design comes into play as the evening progresses and the sun sets. Dina El-Aziz has provided some smashing costumes, including a black-and-white fur coat and chic pantsuit for Célimène and Arsinoé's all-black ensemble, accessorized with sunglasses, bracelets, and earrings. Without being excessively loud, Chad Raines' sound design allows the text to triumph over the inevitable distractions of airplanes, sirens, and rowdy revelers in the park. Indeed, the cast brooks no interference. At the performance I attended, they dealt confidently with a swarm of gnats that temporarily seized center stage; also, when Alceste confronted Célimène with evidence of her infidelity, a powerful gust of wind swept through the area, causing Ebert to announce, "Even the gods are with me on this one!"

Leaving the park, I wondered (as I often have), why we don't get more Molière revivals. His incomparably witty comedies have lost none of the relevance; The Misanthrope's milieu of social duplicity mirrors our own with uncanny accuracy. And, hidden in the play's farcical comings and goings lurks a darker question: In a world where good manners equal flagrant dishonesty, how is one to proceed without losing one's soul? After you're done laughing, you can ponder that thought for a nice long while. --David Barbour

(19 May 2022)

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