The problem with the play is that it’s just not funny,” says a character in Trinity Rep’s laugh-deprived production that loosely weaves three Moliere one-acts around a story about the French farceur’s struggling acting troupe as it prepares for a do-or-die perf before the king.
Sometimes a critic’s job is just too easy.
It might have seemed like an inspired idea to have the Providence resident acting company — some members have worked together for decades — play members of Moliere’s ragtag troupe. (Adding a bittersweet subtext is a sense of change in the company as its leader, Oskar Eustis, prepares to exit Rhode Island for New York’s Public Theater this year.)
But coming together as a commedia dell’arte ensemble is not an easy assignment, even for veteran performers and with expert guidance. Not everyone can suddenly turn into a Bill Irwin or Jim Dale and make physical comedy surprising, fresh and effortless. Sometimes it’s just bad burlesque.
Christopher Bayes, a leading teacher of commedia and a talented performer himself, conceived and directed the production with an unfortunate liberal hand. Here the would-be-clowns have taken over the circus and, in a spirit of anything goes, nothing does. Everyone seems to be endlessly shtuck on shtick.
Clocking in at well over two hours, the show becomes increasingly tedious and tiresome as we experience for the umpteenth time another mimed bodily function, another bang on the noggin, another ba-dum-bum from the two-man band.
The production is translated from the French and adapted by playwright Rinne Groff, whose “The Ruby Sunrise” last season was an imaginative marvel of a play. Groff has tried to create a human world for this desperate gang, but her story-within-the story is cliched, sentimental and belabored. Meanwhile, comic relationships that are suggested are dropped and long-in-the making setups have little or no payoff.
The play opens with a young apprentice actor (played by Trinity apprentice Andy Grotelueschen) joining Moliere’s company as it gathers to rehearse for a royal court perf. Among the members are the jealous husband (Mauro Hantman), the ham (Stephen Berenson), the sexy ingenue (Rachel Warren), the socially conscious actor (William Damkoehler) and the dimwit who can’t remember her lines (Janice Duclos). Then there’s Moliere himself.
As played by an inexhaustible Fred Sullivan Jr., he’s a brilliant, bullying, competitive genius, a French Sid Caesar presiding over a touring “Show of Shows.” The first act incorporates Moliere’s “The Forced Marriage” and “The Versailles Impromptu” into Groff’s backstage goings-on of egos, libidos and career brinksmanship.
Faced with performing before Louis XIV without a play ready, the group decides to improvise a new one and, quicker than you can say “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” the show goes on — largely Moliere’s “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.” Each of the comics has his centerstage moment, the king (amusingly played by Timothy Crowe) is pleased and the company is saved.
“The Moliere Impromptu” ends with the apprentice looking blissed out, gazing at a sky of newly minted stars on Narelle Sisson’s large and versatile set.
But contemporary auds are more likely to feel like a Punch and Judy puppet: endlessly pummeled and wondering what’s so funny.