Anyone who thinks sycophancy died in the 17th century should take in Martin Crimp’s new version of “The Misanthrope,” which offers up Moliere made acidly funny — not to mention accurate — for society today. Set in contemporary London in an artsy world even the uninitiated will recognize all too well, this “Misanthrope” is Crimp’s previous play, “The Treatment,” given the spin of biting rhyme. It’s also, lest there be any doubt, an absolute hoot.
In plays like “No One Sees the Video,” Crimp has made a dramatic specialty out of media-age machinations, which represents exactly the milieu to which Moliere’s 1666 satire has been transplanted. Onetime idealist Alceste is now a dyspeptic Scottish playwright (played by Ken Stott), who has fallen for a young American film actress, Jennifer (Elizabeth McGovern), in England to promote her newest film and herself. “It’s not love; it’s psychiatric disorder,” Jennifer complains of Alceste’s manic affections while an entourage of flatterers sweeps through her hotel suite. Is his adversarial posture a sign of bravery or foolishness? As in the original, the answer is a bit of both, though it’s unlikely even Richard Wilbur at his best has ever made Moliere sound so racy.
Alceste is the only character to retain his forebear’s name. His friend Philinte is now the camp confidante John (William Osborne), who gives voice to the reasoned middle way even as Alceste sees him as a man corrupted. (Amid such witty company, it’s only too bad the talented Osborne mispronounces names such as Derrida.) Adding to the intrigue are the critic Covington (Niall Buggy), his name an amalgam of two Fleet Street veterans; the journalist Ellen (Cathryn Bradshaw), whose way with a hot story lands her in hot water; and the amazingly attired Marcia (Linda Marlowe), an acting teacher who warns Jennifer against being “mind-fucked.”
A certain liberality with expletives isn’t the only liberty Crimp has taken. Far from being undone by his own principles, this Alceste seems instead to occupy the bitchy end of a spectrum that finds his fawningcompanions at the other extreme. The result may limit the far-reaching resonance of Moliere’s argument, but that is more than made up for by some hilarious badinage, not least a comment or two about British theater participants today — David Hare and Andrew Lloyd Webber, among them — that score points no less ruthlessly than actor Julian (Jo Stone-Fewings), one of Jennifer’s retinue, scores coke.
Playing a star student from Juilliard who has lost her integrity, the impossibly leggy McGovern holds her own in an otherwise Anglo-Irish ensemble; one happily notes a new-found confidence in this actress not present in her New York stage outings a decade or so ago.
But the evening belongs to Lindsay Posner’s brisk direction of a delightful cast to the accompaniment of an original score (by Paddy Cunneen) that suggests a Moliere contemporary like Lully by way of Philip Glass. Snarling his way across Joanna Parker’s minimal, wooden-floored set, Stott is both pitiable and petulant — a John Osborne antihero looking sideways in anger. “Make a scene? You can’t even write one!” Alceste barks at Covington, who has tried his hand at writing a play. Indeed, it’s just one of many pleasures of this “Misanthrope” that one feels Crimp would make a first-rate critic — if, that is, he ever tires of anatomizing bile onstage rather than — like most of us — on the page.