The Misanthrope

McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, through Mar. 31, 609 683-8000.

Andre Ernotte's production of Moliere's 1666 comedy The Misanthrope at McCarter Theatre almost has it all. It's classy, lovely, often funny, and smart; it's both classically elegant and theatrically high-concept.

If it weren't for the actor playing the title part, it might actually work. The production has not one directorial concept but several, not all of which work equally well or with equal clarity. Set designer Douglas Stein has placed a curving wainscotted wooden facade, filled with French doors, in the middle of a stained gray concrete cube. We're in a theater (with an apron stage, ornate footlights, and a red velvet curtain) and we're not. We're in the 17th century (Martin Pakledinaz's gorgeous period costumes tell us) and we're not. The lighting (by Michael Chybowksi) changes boldly and artificially for reasons that are not always abundantly clear.

The world of the play is, at the very least, being viewed as a world of artifice and theatricality. To the music of an onstage harpsichordist, the characters break into ornate dances during the scene interludes, the flirting aristocrats change partners in the dance as they pose and preen to Williamichael Badolato's period choreography. Alceste -- the misanthrope of Moliere's title -- looks scornfully on, until later in the play he too is drawn into a blind-man's-bluff gavotte of desire. Alceste is both inside the play and outside: at the beginning, dressed all in black, he accosts the stage servant (who, by French theatrical tradition, begins performances by rapping his staff against the stage floor) and literally wrestles him to the ground, unwilling to let the play itself begin.

It's not altogether clear where all this is going, but it does succeed in shifting some of the play's focus from the personal to the social. Alceste in Moliere's play is the plain-speaking outsider, contemptuous of the insincerity of the world of high society, unable to tolerate the hypocrisy and duplicity of everyday social discourse and unable to restrain himself from speaking out against it. In the play as written, Alceste's one flaw is that he has fallen in love with young widow Celimne (Nancy Bell), despite the fact that she is as duplicitous as everyone else in society, and as unwilling to separate herself from society as Alceste would wish her to.

In Ernotte's production, all this is more complicated. Society is an elaborate game, a dance if you will, in which honesty and outspokenness, which Alceste claims as his monopoly, are simply other steps in the dance. What, the production seems to be asking, does it mean to be honest in the world of fashion, when one of the world's fashions is to appear to be honest? Hence (perhaps) the theatrical boxes-within-boxes of Ernotte's production and the period-facade-in-a-box metaphor of Stein's set.

The problem with all this is Alceste. "My one great talent," he says, in Richard Wilbur's wonderful rhyming-verse translation, "is for speaking plain.'' This is certainly not true of Stephen Lang. In a production spoken with the vaguely "mid-Atlantic'' diction common to American productions of the "classics,'' Lang is aggressively High-Brit-Theatrical, sounding like a cross between Richard Burton and Ian McKellan, pulling out every consonant-hammering and vowel-stretching verse-reading trick in the book. He grimaces, barks, snarls, and growls, and sputters, until he has hardly any voice left to bark with."

Is there a metaphor at work here? Is his diction an indication that the somberly-dressed Alceste is at heart as artificial as the beplumed and beribboned courtiers? Is this a metatheatrical metaphor, saying that Alceste as an actor is a European alien outsider to the mid-Atlantic theatre world of the play?

I expect not, for the price of Lang's performance to the rest of the production is too high. More emotionally truthful things seem to be happening elsewhere in the production: in the surprisingly mature and knowing view of the world of the ingenue Eliante (Ann Torsiglieri); in the notably un-glib proposal she receives from Alceste's friend Philinte (Jim Abele); and in Nancy Bell's Celimne, who genuinely seems to suffer when her deceptions are exposed and she is stripped of her friends and her dignity (and, here, her wig) in the play's final moments.

The production ends with Climne and Alceste down on the apron, two solitary figures leaning against each end of the proscenium arch, one a skilled social player stripped down to her naked emotional self, the other a ruthlessly honest if self- deceiving character whom we have just seen played by a technically grandiose and ostentatiously dishonest actor.

What are we to think?

-- Cary M. Mazer