The Public Theater’s “Tartuffe” is a busy, bouncy, bright and bawdy production that has no trouble holding its own in the challenging arena of Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. Director Mark Brokaw’s interpretation of the Richard Wilbur translation is liberally laced with contemporary glosses, thus sacrificing a certain amount of Moliere’s style and refinement, but the show succeeds on its own bold and brassy terms, and has at its center a simply brilliant performance by Charles Kimbrough as the disastrously duped Orgon.
The preposterousness of the wealthy Orgon’s infatuation with the saintly impostor Tartuffe has been much discussed before either character appears in the play, but Kimbrough’s addled Orgon manages to outstrip all his family’s descriptions. He’s pale with lovesickness, his hair stringy and neglected in emulation of his idol’s, and he flies into a dithering rage, his facial muscles twitching nervously whenever Tartuffe’s motives are called into question. In an exquisitely silly touch, after Orgon’s son Damis has attempted to discredit his favorite, Orgon cradles his beloved and maligned Tartuffe in his arms in a pieta of impiety; Kimbrough’s adoration is so funny it’s touching.
While many of the other performers give successful comic performances, they often draw on contemporary inflections and attitudes to connect with the audience — they step outside period and play to win a laugh. Kimbrough, by contrast, inhabits his character entirely, relying on Wilbur’s sprightly verse to convey the humor in his ludicrous devotion; he draws us into Moliere’s world, rather than reinterpreting his character for ours. The resulting performance is the finest and funniest in the show.
The other dominant presence in the production is Mary Testa’s Dorine, the lady’s maid who orchestrates the family’s resistance to the depredations of the interloper in the early scenes. There’s probably more Thelma Ritter than Moliere in Testa’s sassy Dorine, as she polishes apples on her rump and turns rhyming couplets into wry wisecracks, but she’s undeniably effective at milking laughs from Dorine’s disgust at the family’s haplessness in the face of Tartuffe.
In the famous title role, Dylan Baker, now best known as the softly predatory suburban dad in “Happiness,” works hard to compete with the brazen theatrics of Testa and the affectionate frenzy of Kimbrough’s Orgon. Baker has an impressive leer — his arched, malevolent-looking eyebrows seem to enter the room before he does — and his lascivious pawing of Elmire (J. Smith-Cameron) is really repellent.
But his Tartuffe doesn’t have the charm and charisma of a confidence man, or the outsized theatricality that the part lends itself to. When Tartuffe appears in the final scene dressed in vulgar finery — designer Jess Goldstein amusingly decks him out in what appears to be all the upholstery of a courtesan’s boudoir — Baker disappears into the costume.
Among a mostly able supporting cast, a pair of Gotham stage veterans stand out. Smith-Cameron is bright-eyed, coy and wily as Elmire, delightfully sarcastic as her husband waits almost to the point of no return before saving her honor; and Dana Ivey is hypocrisy incarnate as Orgon’s censorious mother Madame Pernelle, who clings so dearly to her belief in the badness of her relations that she can’t bring herself to give up her confidence in the goodness of Tartuffe.
Riccardo Hernandez’s gleaming gold set comments elegantly on the play’s themes. The gilt and mirrors of its three sets of French doors might dazzle the eye, but behind their showy allure can be seen the more subdued, and more pleasing, beauties of the natural order — the greenery of Central Park.