Although Moliere himself considered his masterpiece, The Misanthrope, a comedy, it is, in some ways, closer to a tragicomedy. Otherwise put, what distinguishes a serious comedy from a mere farce is its having something serious to say underneath, which allows us to see that drama and comedy are the two sides of the same coin, and that that coin is the human condition, which cannot escape mutability, transience and, ultimately, mortality.
(L to R): Kern McFadden (Oronte) and Sean McNall (Alceste).>>>
Anyone wanting my extended thoughts on this great play—which is to comedy what Hamlet is to tragedy—is referred to my book John Simon on Theater, containing three entries on The Misanthrope, including a long one that comprises a goodly amount of material for which a review has no space.
The protagonist, Alceste, is a passionate truth teller, idealist, wry skeptic about human nature, and, most comically and tragically, a perfectionist. That he too is human he perceives only very intermittently. Right off, Oronte, a courtier who seeks his assessment of a commonplace love sonnet he has written, flatters Alceste to the moon, but turns harshly antagonistic when he receives a negative judgment. Alceste’s friend, the practical Philinte, opts here as elsewhere for complaisance, the white lie needed for so many human relationships. Note also that even Alceste tried to get out of passing a judgment he expected to be negative.
<<<(L to R): Shawn Fagan (Philinte) and Sean McNall (Alceste).
One may even consider Alceste an unconscious masochist as he revels in a forthcoming lawsuit he will lose, but what is its cost compared to the satisfaction of providing proof for the injustice of the world? So, too, he woos the flighty Celimene rather than her virtuous cousin Eliante, equally taken with him. Eventually he even pleads with Celimene to pretend to be exclusively interested in him and nobody else, so that he may, however effortfully, believe it.
(L to R): Janie Brookshire (Célimène) and Patrick Halley (Clitandre).>>>
The play moves on fascinatingly toward an open ending, which the Pearl Theatre Company’s revival, otherwise so conscientious, makes a trifle less powerful than it might be. Adding to the complexity is that Moliere has written in brilliantly rhymed verse, which Richard Wilbur’s translation, almost miraculously, renders into equally brilliant and faithful English verse. This makes serious demands on the actors, who must not entirely obscure meter and rhyme, yet not ever call excessive attention to them.
<<<(L to R): Sean McNall (Alceste) and Janie Brookshire (Célimène).
The Pearl production is successful in most respects. Harry Feiner’s simple set—an upstage row of four ornamental, partly transparent doors, flanked by sizable mirrors that do not always fully reflect thanks to Stephen Petrilli’s clever lighting, a single small, upholstered and movable bench, plus a stage floor with two slightly different levels—works admirably. Sam Fleming’s costumes—except for Celimene’s last one, which looks more like a nightgown—are as attractive as they are appropriate.
There are some problems with Joseph Hanreddy’s direction, rather too touchy-feely, what with all sorts of jabbing, patting, caressing, embracing, heads or even bodies in someone else’s lap–not to mention Alceste twice crawling toward Celimene on all fours—all definitely not aristocratic 17th-century France. But there is also some good blocking and grouping as effective as the groping, as well as some nice variations in rhythm and volume, in short apt vocal music.
<<<Joey Parsons (Arsinoé).
Sean McNall is a totally credible Alceste, with a fine blend of often contradictory and paradoxical aspects ably balanced and lightly worn. Janie Brookshire is an alluring Celimene, elegant of movement and, when called for, eloquent of utterance, her wit and intelligence keeping pace with her coquetry. As Oronte, Kern McFadden could cut a somewhat more winning figure, but is otherwise steadily on target. As Philinte, the man of reason, Shawn Fagan never fails to clothe reasonableness in fleshly compromise with utmost charm.
The two marquis, Acaste and Clitandre, fops and foolish adulators of Celimene who lead her into malicious but amusing gossip, are perhaps a tad too farcical, but deftly differentiated and, as caricatured by Matthew Amendt and Patrick Halley, good bitchy fun. Equally good is the Arsinoe of Joey Parsons, who doesn’t deprive that pious hypocrite and phony prude of a modicum of engaging drollery. Dominic Cuskern is solid as two separate servants, and only Robin LeMon makes the worthy Eliane’s expressions too blank and her presence rather too uncompetitive with her sparkling cousin’s.
But let us, above all, be grateful for a play and production that make us think as well as laugh, eliciting concern as well as merriment with the subtlest kind of wit, and allow us to leave with a very clear sense of having been regally enriched.
Photos by and courtesy of Jacob J Goldberg.
The Pearl Theatre Company
New York City Center Stage II
131 West 55th Street
Tickets at 212) 581-1212 or
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com Bloomberg Newsand. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review Washington Postand. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures Connoisseurand and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.