A touching “Tartuffe”? Moliere’s satire of religious fanaticism isn’t usually celebrated for its ability to tug at the heartstrings, but the Roundabout Theater Co.’s subdued but rewarding new production finds some dark and intriguing new colors in this mainstay of the theatrical canon. Director Joe Dowling takes the high road here, approaching Moliere’s comedy not as a rip-roaring farce — the easy way out, too often chosen — but as a gently humorous drama of diseased psychology, a tale of romantic obsession and its dangerous consequences. With a pair of consummately skilled actors, Brian Bedford and Henry Goodman, playing the victim and the object of that obsession, the production also becomes a master class in the kind of effortlessly graceful classical acting too rarely seen on Broadway.
Goodman’s Tartuffe, the hair-shirt-wearing confidence man, is not, of course, the play’s central character. The pivotal role is that of Orgon (Bedford), the rich bourgeois whose fascination with this fraudulent holy man upends his household and nearly bankrupts him. In Bedford’s piercing performance, Orgon’s thrall is rendered respectfully: While remaining rational, the man gently seems to enter a parallel world of beatific bemusement whenever the beloved’s name is mentioned. Bedford’s Orgon is foolish, perhaps, but never ridiculous — the actor insists upon the truth, and even the honorability, of Orgon’s feeling; it’s in the bestowing of it upon an unworthy object that Orgon’s misfortune lies. (Hints of homoeroticism are treated gently.) It’s impossible not to be moved by the spectacle of a man so totally at the mercy of misguided affection.
Bedford, who nabbed a Tony back in 1971 for his performance in another Moliere play, “The School for Wives,” may well be the foremost interpreter of this repertoire onstage today. His performance here reminds us why: He intuitively finds the pulse of Richard Wilbur’s peerless verse translation, revealing simultaneously the sense, the beauty and the wit of the language — but without turning his speeches into showpieces of clever verbiage. Most crucially, he underscores the pitiful humor in Orgon’s plight without losing sight of the character’s essential humanity. He understands that it is by penetrating to the eternal psychological truth of Moliere’s characters that his plays can be made to thrive onstage today.
Goodman, too, is an actor with an impressive list of classical credits to his name. (His Shylock was the finest this critic ever expects to see.) The British actor is perhaps best known in New York, alas, as the axed Max of Broadway’s “Producers.” There are a few moments — an anachronistic gesture of victory when Tartuffe narrowly escapes exposure, for example — when Goodman seems to succumb to a wayward impulse to prove how funny he can be. The answer is: quite funny enough — and no need to protest so much. Goodman is particularly fine in the scene that finds Tartuffe, exposed by Orgon’s son, Damis (T.R. Knight), for the lascivious impostor he is, backpedaling hilariously, insisting so intensely upon his own sinfulness that he convinces Orgon of the very opposite.
But what is most commendable about Goodman’s performance is just what might have made him an uncomfortable fit for Mr. Bialystock: Goodman, too, is an actor who instinctively goes for psychological truth rather than theatrical effect; his Tartuffe is frighteningly convincing in his rapaciousness, a formidable foe rather than a mere comic construct. Max Bialystock, by contrast, is nothing but a big butterball of shtick — and all the more glorious for it.
It is probably clear by now that Dowling’s “Tartuffe” is not a gut-buster. Performed on a zealously naturalistic series of sets by John Lee Beatty, with hazy lighting by Brian MacDevitt that emphasizes their faux-Old Master qualities, the production often comes across more as a brooding, dark-hued moral drama — Arthur Miller in wigs and pantaloons — than a scintillating comedy. It inspires a measure of wry smiles, but few guffaws, and there are times when some of the actors’ offhand way with the verse leads to serious longueurs.
Pleasingly light-fingered peformances from J. Smith-Cameron as the conniving maid, Dorine, and Rosaleen Linehan as Madame Pernelle are in keeping with the production’s subtle tones, even if Jane Greenwood’s painstakingly accurate period costumes aren’t always (the unfortunate Jeffrey Carlson, playing Valere, the young suitor for Orgon’s daughter’s hand, is all but upstaged by his outlandish attire: He appears to be wearing a Persian rug that a feral cat has got the better of).
But the evening’s turning point — in which Orgon witnesses Tartuffe’s perfidy while hiding underneath a table — works up a generous comic froth, thanks in particular to the deliciously witty playing of Kathryn Meisle, as Orgon’s wife, Elmire. This charming actress is becoming something of a classical specialist herself; she is the rare young stage actor who is at ease with the challenges of Shakespearean verse. Elmire’s coy efforts to expose Tartuffe’s lustful designs, followed by her desperate attempts to delay their consummation and draw her idle husband from his hiding place, serve to bring the play to a ripe comic climax.
It then subsides into the somewhat labored exposition of the family’s near-destruction and ultimate savior by the benevolent hand of the prince (read Louis XIV). But Dowling concludes with a lovely touch: As the vanquished Tartuffe is dragged off to jail and the family files back into Orgon’s mansion, the proprietor himself remains outside, unable to take his eyes off the sorry spectacle. A look of strange wonder plays across Orgon’s face, an expression in which relief and triumph play only a minor part. The depth and richness of Bedford’s peformance are distilled into this final image, of a man watching an emotional storm that has shaken him to the core slowly recede. He’s thankful that it is over, but he seems smaller and sadder standing in its wake.