The venue may have changed, but the virtues of the Peter Hall Co. mostly remain in this second production of Hall’s seasonlong tenure at the Piccadilly Theater. Over the last year at the Old Vic, Hall made a habit of clear, uncluttered stagings of the classics, and his new “Misanthrope” is a worthy follower to the “Waste” and “Waiting for Godot” that were the high points of Hall’s own directorial contributions to the previous lineup. The evening would be better if it were gimmick-free, which is to say uniformly cast according to skill instead of one eye on the carriage trade.
How else is one to explain the presence of musical diva Elaine Paige playing Moliere? One could certainly defend the idea, amid a climate that has Patti LuPone acting David Mamet on Broadway. The difference, of course, is that LuPone trained as a classical actress, and Paige did not. Don’t let the practiced stage grin fool you — she’s out of her depths.
One of course applauds any performer’s attempts to widen his or her range, but Paige’s hard-edged Celimeneblunts a production whose new translation (by Ranjit Bolt) is already a notch or two more crude than it needs to be. (Purists should brace themselves for references to “poo poo,” “dogshit” and worse.) As written, Celimene is a flirtatious tease in a society obsessed with currying court favor, but all Paige projects is the peculiar, even steely self-regard one recalls at least as far back as her West End “Anything Goes.” The couplets come easily enough to Paige; what do not are period feel or wit. In the end, perhaps it’s a matter not of training but of instinct: Paige’s are all too forgivably modern, and it shows.
Luckily for the audience, she’s surrounded by a company — most of them veterans of Hall’s Old Vic season — who take to French neo-Classicism as easily as John Gunter’s simple, suggestive set (a snake crawling up the side makes plain the dubious values of the 17th century) takes to the not-always-hospitable Piccadilly. The production deserves better than the scant crowd among whom I sat on Good Friday, though perhaps that is not the day for what’s left of religious England to see a play that — for all its apparent high style — can be so emotionally raw.
There’s always been something sexless and cold about Michael Pennington’s acting, and that quality is perfect for Alceste, just as it provided the proper match last year to the despairing statesman in “Waste.” The misanthrope of the title, Alceste is the play’s wisest participant as well as its principal dupe, a man of clarity and principle who remains oddly blind throughout.
Pennington captures all these facets, alongside a vulnerability one feels the character never knew he had: He’s a malcontent hoisted on the petard of his own ideals, and Pennington suggests the bleak coal face that underlies much lasting comedy.
The star is ably supported by Hall regulars like Anna Carteret, offering up an Arsinoe whose initially grave, cautionary tones turn delightfully fruity late on. Warning of “dark times,” David Yelland makes a genial and sage Philinte — he’s the phlegm to Alceste’s bile — while a stiff-backed (and floridly costumed by Colin Lavers and Elizabeth Waller) Peter Bowles is a hilariously unctuous Oronte: He’s a so-called “waistcoated buffoon” happy to be the butt of the joke even if it is the tragedy of Alceste not to realize that the last laugh is on him.