It’s all about the casting. Is it almost impossible to get a ticket for this revival of “The Misanthrope” because it’s updated Moliere in the West End? No, it’s because it features the stage debut of Keira Knightley. And the good news is that in the role of a beautiful, willful movie star she’s perfectly fine. The bad news is that director Thea Sharrock has so miscast the title role that her production never achieves comic lift-off.Martin Crimp’s version of Moliere — first seen in 1996 and now updated to include more contemporary riffs and references to social and artistic mores — is set in the world of media celebrity. As John (Dominic Rowan), the hero’s best friend, observes, “The world’s a mess. Absolutely. We’ve fucked it. So why not just sit back and deconstruct it?” Alceste (Damian Lewis) is a playwright of high seriousness who’s in a relationship with and helplessly in love with glamorous star Jennifer, “a woman whose distaste for monogamy is already legendary.” In her grand and dauntingly expensive hotel suite, smartly realized by designer Hildegard Bechtler with Louis Quinze chairs and ultra-chic modern sofas, Jennifer’s entourage of agents, pet-journalists, friends and enemies (often the same person) gather and regroup. They bitch and backbite their way through the viperish nest of interlocked relationships, beneath the merciless eye and lacerating tongue of Alceste. My love is incandescent. I won’t be treated like an infatuated adolescent,” he cries. It’s meant to be a comedy line because of his total lack of self-knowledge. But the sadly miscast Lewis just sounds angry. The anger needs to spiral up into the kind of outrage that is so absurd it becomes endearingly funny. We should find his savage truth-telling as amusing as it is preposterous. But Lewis’ anger turns inward and curdles into bitterness, turning his character sour and leaving the play rudderless. You sense the discomfort in this intelligent actor because his voice sounds so tight and strained throughout. Furthermore, an off-center Alceste leaves Rowan’s John equally at sea. Sharrock’s direction, which often mistakes speed for pace, does them few favors either. The prevailingly witty lines have clearly been mined for meaning, but there’s the worrying sense that the rhyming verse is being obeyed rather than shaped to dramatic ends. The atmosphere rarely builds, and it’s left to subsidiary roles to supply most of the laughs. In formal blazer and trendy jeans as oleaginous theater-critic-turned-playwright Covington (his name is a conflation of two of London’s most longstanding critics) Tim McMullan is the very picture of pomposity. Deliciously, he doesn’t so much speak as preen lines like, “I could get you on to the front-page — like a Lloyd Webber musical — or some other natural disaster.” The strongest performance is Tara Fitzgerald’s as Jennifer’s acting coach. She lands every single laugh in the script — and more besides — through her physical precision, and her calm and exact placement of every thought. Fitzgerald’s handling of pace shows what’s missing elsewhere. Gaining in strength throughout the show, Knightley has a spot-on American accent and a nice line in disdain that turns tough as events overtake her. Producers may not yet be making lists of further theater roles in which to cast her, but Knightley silences the media doom-mongers and will ensure a financially successful run.
Comedy Theater, London; 791 seats; £49.50 $80 top
A Howard Panter and Tali Pelman for Ambassador Theater Group, Sweet Pea Prods., Tulchin/Bartner Prods. presentation of a play in two acts by Moliere in a version by Martin Crimp. Directed by Thea Sharrock.
Sets, Hidegard Bechtler; costumes, Amy Roberts; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Ian Dickinson; production stage manager, Charlotte Warner. Opened, reviewed Dec. 17, 2009. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.
Alceste - Damian Lewis John - Dominic Rowan Jennifer - Keira Knightley Covington - Tim McMullan Ellen - Tara Fitzgerald Alexander - Nicholas Le Prevost Julian - Chuk Iwuji Marcia - Kelly Price Messenger, Simon - James Hogg