PEOPLE are insincere. They say things like "Tell it like it is," "Be yourself," and "Let it all hang out." Too often they mean "You look terrible without a bra," "I don't care if you're a Libra," or "I am announcing the start of bombing in Cambodia." People rarely lie, they simply are not sincere.
Three hundred years ago, Moliere wrote a comedy about a man named Alceste who abhorred insincerity. The Misanthrope chronicles Alceste's refusal to lie, flatter, praise or soothe in the manner of polite society. The Misanthrope, now playing at Lehman Hall, is unsatisfying theater.
Some fault may lie with Moliere. The plot is typically weak. The main action consists of an endless cocktail party, a number of ephemeral, off-stage lawsuits, and Alceste's failure to snare the insincere coquette, Celimene, on his terms of absolute sincerity.
On the other hand, Moliere's characterization is his forte: Alceste cannot escape hypocrisy. For him, misanthropy is not incompatible with love. His heartfelt longing for the beautiful, five-timing Celimene permits him to--shudder--ignore her insincerity.
It is a difficult role to play. Alceste is often the proud, arrogant misanthrope, as when he pompously shreds a fop's attempt at sonnetry. But when near his love, Celimene, he is an absurd blunderbuss.
This is vintage Moliere, though a Moliere scholar once wrote that The Misanthrope is poorly named. Alceste does not hate mankind, goes this interpretation. Rather, he cannot resolve his romantic idealism with the realities of life. Accordingly, the play should be called The Romantic.
The Dudley House production would be more aptly titled The Bar Mitzvah Party. Ben Schatz creates an Alceste who is petulant, insipid and obnoxious. He shouts too much, smirks unexplainably, and flounders in an oversized tuxedo like a Bar Mitzvah boy who hates the guests but doesn't want the party to end. For the slurring speed with which he gives half his lines, Schatz may as well be playing Alceste in Moliere's original French. Instead of social comment, the play becomes farce.
The supporting cast saves the show. Arrayed as Alceste's targets of misanthropy, these liars and flatterers become likable. Philip Corbett is superb as Philante, the charming, gracious and witty friend whom Alceste ignores. Corbett manages Moliere's stilted verse as if it were his own. He is properly expressive when suffering Alceste's bombast.
Elise Paschen is delightfully unfaithful as Celimene, Alceste's amour. When she matches couched insults with the prudish Arsinoe, admirably portrayed by Felicity Stafford, The Misanthrope is both funny and a serious commentary on the double-edged talk of an insincere society.
John Keenan is hilarious as the highbrowed, effeminate sonneteer. And David Cort steals his brief scenes as Acaste, one in the flock of Celimene's suitors. Yet the evening remains unsatisfying.
The production suffers from severe weaknesses. Director Greg Farrell seems to find no distinction between projection and bellowing. Thus the tone of the entire play is too loud, like a minuet turned to disco level. There is also a strange mish-mash of modern and antique costuming that, despite its cuteness, is distracting. And though designer Tamar Zimmerman constructed an adequately elegant sitting-room for the only set, her lighting often darkens half the stage, shadowing actors at key moments.
Worst, however, is the void created by miscasting Schatz as Alceste. "Human frailty provides occasion for philosophy," says one character near the play's end. Alceste's obsession with sincerity prompts another truism: Acting frailty provides occasion for a mediocre production.