Stratford boss Richard Monette has tried to imbue Moliere’s “The Miser” with his own particular brand of comic theatricality, but in so doing has unhappily fallen flat on his face with a production top-heavy in gags, stylistically confused and tentatively performed.
The latter may work itself out before the production arrives at Gotham’s City Center in November, but the first two problems are insoluble without major reworking. The idea here, presumably, is to frame Moliere’s satirical wit within a contemporary sitcom sensibility of pratfalls, smart-alecky repartee and visual jokes, but the 17th-century phrasings and framework do not lend themselves to this amount of broad tweaking.
It is ironic that the program notes specify: “Although Moliere does not disdain buffoonery and sight gags, tricks of the theatrical trade which brought him his early successes, it was his ability to write for an urbane, sophisticated audience with an ear for a refined use of language that set him apart from his predecessors.”
There is no refinement here, no attempt to address an urbane audience. Instead, the show is heavy-handed and often childish, with everyone trying their best to be big and boisterous — right off the top the warden who knocks three times hits his toe and limps away moaning — in a satire devoid of intellect. Yet, above all, Moliere’s comedy is one of ideas, one that contains issues as well as constant confrontations between the naive and the cunning.
Most of that is lost here, although a final scene — in which William Hutt, as Harpagon, sinks to his knees with his precious, recovered money box and begins to count the gold — sticks out for its economy of action and strength of motivation. Surrounded by Meredith Caron’s cold stone walls and hauntingly shadowed by Michael J. Whitfield’s shafts of golden light, Harpagon lovingly reconnects with the one object that is most precious to him. The effect is chilling.
The rest of the time, Hutt, like the others, cavorts merrily around, spinning in his wheelchair. On opening night, he groped for his lines. But even a mediocre performance from Hutt has its mesmerizing moments, and he is always watchable.
Martha Henry, as the scheming Frosine, does not fare as well. Clad in a series of bountiful petticoats from which all manner of objects emerge, including an abacus, she bounces around and slips into so many different dialects (none of them hooked to the character as far as I could tell) that only a set of castanets helps to posit her as vaguely — very vaguely — a Spanish Mae West.
Michelle Giroux and David Glass, playing the two young lovers Elise and Valere, appear to have talent. It’s hard to know with all the business they are asked to deliver, but each has presence and occasionally gives a glimpse of what a more restrained and centered production might have looked like.
Various servants and bit players are dressed as if on break from the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with whiteface and fright wigs, and at one point three of them line up as if to begin “The Time Warp.” It would not have been out of line in this production if they had.
Somehow, though, brief moments of textural clarity do emerge, standing out like headlights on a dark road, and while the approach remains problematic throughout, the actual rhythms of the show begin to smooth themselves out later in the play, serving up some more palatable and even occasionally enjoyable scenes.
But mostly this “Miser” is mired in slapstick, wide-eyed vaudeville and cheap melodrama. It’s hard to know what to call it, but it is not Moliere.