In Moliere's Impromptu at Versailles, now playing at the Loeb Experimental Theater along with Chekov's Swan Song, a group of actors prepare a play for presentation before the King on very short notice. The play they are preparing is an oblique reply to a recent attack on Moliere and his comedies, aind in it a group of Moliere's enemies discuss the attack. In the process they show themselves to be just the sort of people Moliere had described in his previous plays. Periodically Moliere, who is directing the inner play, interrupts the rehearsal with instructions and the actors interrupt with complaints.
The actors in Impromptu, consequently, must with some exceptions all have two different characters, must be able to switch back and forth quickly, and must be able to time their lines differently in and out of rehearsal Most of them do this admirably, and Deborah Fortson's production is lively and imaginative.
Richard Monette, as Moliere, played his part with authority, and as the central character he set the necessary fast pace. His imitation of an overdone performance of Lear was very amusing; my only complaint is that he seemed to have too much energy. Perhaps this is the way Miss Fortson invisioned Moliere, but I wished Monette could have gotten more convincingly exasperated, or spoken more naturally. He sounded like he was acting, and this is a major fault, since in the play Moliere makes fun of unnatural actors.
Miss Fortson has the actors create their personalities by pantomime peripheral to the main action--usually while the director is talking. This device often produces amusing irony, as when she makes Du Croisy (Charles Siegel), who is a would-be literary lion in the inner play, a shy wooer in real life.
In individualizing so many characters in so short a time, she has had inevitably to resort to caricatures, and some are more successful than others. I thought Charles Ascheim's stylized version of the impossible La Thorilliere was particularly effective.
Laura Esterman's Mile Moliere struck me as singularly realistic. At the same time Jill Newman, as Mile Herve, seemed too anxious to look like a nervous French girl, and Meg Meglatherly's coquettish walk, in the part of Mile de Brie seemed overdone. But this is likely to be a matter of individual taste.
Swan Song is a long soliloquy by an old actor, Vassily Vassilyith Svetlovidov (John Ross), punctuated occasionally by remarks from an equally ancient prompter (Peter Weil), whom Svetlovidov finds in a deserted theater. Svetlovidov is alternately pathetic and ridiculous, as he recalls his life on the stage.
Director Maurice Breslow has chosen to make the old actor rather self-assertive, a tired braggard, who occasionally recognizes what a fool he is. To portray Svetlovidov this way, Ross would need a greater range to his voice than he has. When he recites lines from Hamlet or Lear, Ross must convince the audience that the Svetlovidov he is playing really was great once--as the benefit he has just received suggests--and in this he fails.
Since Ross is unable to do this, I think Breslow should have made Svetlovidov a more reflective, quietly bitter man. Breslow's interpretation may be wrong in any case, since Ross seemed to be rushing through his lines.
Much of what Svetlovidov says is reverie, and his words should simply drift out of his mouth. Declaiming as he did, Ross could not give much gentleness to his character, and he lost the potential beauty of many lines.