There was little reason to expect a rather lackluster ACT season would burn any more brightly at its close, with the mustiest war-horse of the schedule. But director Charles Randolph-Wright has lit a fire under Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” and the resulting fireworks display deserves to go on all summer — perhaps even longer, if a commercial transfer here or elsewhere can be arranged. All in all, this unalloyed delight is the company’s zestiest effort in ages.
The fast-tracked Randolph-Wright (who has Showtime and bigscreen deals lined up in bulk) already gave ACT a wake-up call with a dazzling production of Robert O’Hara’s sharp if uneven “Insurrection: Holding History” last year. His concept for “Tartuffe” sounds fun but glib on paper — transposing Moliere’s satire of religious hypocrisy to a benevolently fantasy-tinged New Black Bourgeois milieu in 1950s North Carolina, while sticking to Richard Wilbur’s unaltered 1965 translation.
Any fears that this might prove another superficial “high concept” disappear forthwith, however. Wilbur’s near-metronomic rhyming verse emerges a perfect fit for Southern African-American cadences, especially in this cast’s inspired delivery. And Randolph-Wright’s brilliant sculpture of the whole package — from retro design elements to the smallest drop-dead gesture — makes “Tartuffe” seem more timely, more wickedly entertaining than ever.
Darryl Theirse plays the title figure as a Little Richard-styled holy roller, complete with Jeri curls and royal purple robes. Allegedly well-born but reduced to dire straits, he’s become a permanent “guest” at the home of wealthy, spellbound Orgon (Steven Anthony Jones). But the latter’s wife (Shona Tucker), son (Gregory Wallace), daughter (Anika Noni Rose), brother-in-law (L. Peter Callender) and “saucy-tongued” maid (Roxanne Raja) smell a rat.
They’re not about to let this sanctimonious interloper worm his way into possession of the family fortunes — including not just wealth and property but the attractive womenfolk’s, ahem, treasure “chests.” But attempts to expose T.’s secret greed and lust backfire, to a point.
The weakest element here is Moliere’s own hasty wrongs-righted conclusion, one that bows so heavily before an absent king’s “wisdom” that you can still smell the then-controversial author placating Louis XIV.
If Randolph-Wright can’t fully salvage that compromised conclusion, everything else at ACT sparkles with invention and intelligence. Each audacious touch works organically: The easy-listening pop standards as transitional commentary, the ’50s suburban high-life details (badminton, plastic slip covers) , even the re-imagining of daughter Mariane’s true love as a “West Side Story” leather-jacketed greaser (Rudy Guerrero).
The tone apes vintage sitcoms to a near-cartoonish degree, albeit with such choreographic precision that the few overt slapstick bits seem unnecessary — like Raisinettes pasted on an already well-iced cake. Randolph-Wright’s actors (many holdovers from his “Insurrection” cast) respond with bottomless comic savvy. It’s hard to choose favorites from this ensemble, but special mention should be made of Guerrero’s hog-riding Romeo, Raja’s very un-servile servant and Rose’s debutante daughter — a taffeta princess whose Pepsodent smile palls under every fretful pressure.
Ralph Funicello has devised a “Better Homes” dream manse, with grand staircase sweeping down to off-white living room splendor; Beaver Bauer outdoes herself parodying Eisenhower-era fashions.