Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” is a glorious exception to the rule that updates to a classic are limited to the infusion of modern-day language. Crimp has preserved the cleverness and the rhyming verse of the play while injecting doses of rude humor. In resetting the story to the entertainment industry, he has created a perfect equivalent to the squabbling, shallow gentry Moliere so memorably skewered. The Andak Stage Company’s Southern California premiere production of the play is superb, a hilarious and literate delight that succeeds on every level.
Alceste (Nick Cagle), the titular misanthrope, is an arrogant British playwright who believes in rigorous honesty to the extent that he is intolerably rude to just about everyone. The amiable flatterer John (Daniel Reichert) tries to tone down his friend’s severity, as when Alceste mercilessly condemns the work of influential critic Covington (Dakin Matthews; Norman Snow alternates in the role), but John’s efforts have no effect.
The only person who can occasionally get through to Alceste is the woman he loves, the American movie star Jennifer (Samantha Sloyan), who’s staying in a hotel room in London while promoting a film. When catty rival actress Marcia (Carlyle King; Peggy Flood alternates in the role) insinuates that Jennifer has been unfaithful, however, anger and possessiveness trump Alceste’s vaunted righteousness.
Cagle offers a robust perf in the lead, stalking across the stage like a perpetually charging bull, verbally dexterous and speaking the rhyming verse like a perfect aria of rage. A moment later in the play, when Alceste gets violent and is genuinely frightening, Cagle deftly displays the thin line between rigid morality and madness.
Sloyan is appropriately arch and flirtatious as Jennifer, and her delivery of a series of devastating putdowns to Marcia is savage in the most deliciously civilized way.
Reichert brings a sense of genial tolerance to John, and adds depth and charm to an essentially straight-man role. Matthews is amusing as the unfortunate Covington, and King is suitably vicious as the vengeful Marcia. Catherine Cavadini is quite good as TV journalist Ellen, Norman Snow properly unctuous as agent Alex and Harris Matthews effectively exudes a jaded sense of entitlement as Jennifer’s fellow actor Julian.
John DeMita’s direction is admirable, from his vigorous staging to his effective use of multimedia that includes video, sound collage and a realistic-looking movie poster. A red-tinted sequence in which Alceste is delivered a mask for an upcoming party is particularly surreal and evocative of the character’s distress.
Dean Cameron’s hotel room set is a study of cool elegance, and the video sequences by Beta-Unit are impressive. Kim Deshazo’s costumes are wonderful, from the spectacularly tacky outfit of Marcia’s to the menagerie of masks and formal wear displayed in the creepy concluding party scene.