People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, through Mar. 10, (610) 644-3500.

There's an extra character in every scene of Louis Rackoff's production of Molire 's Tartuffe at People's Light & Theatre.

I don't mean Tartuffe's slimy servant Laurent (Peter DeLaurier), a constant presence who peers in menacingly through the etched Art Deco panes that ring Jim Pyne's gorgeous woodwork and glass 1930s rotunda set.

No: the extra character is the audience. It's not that the actors address the audience directly just for soliloquies and asides. They address us incessantly. On every third line or so, whether it contains information, philosophy or attitude, the actor will stride forward, make eye contact with one or more members of the audience, and speak directly to us and at us. It's as though, in the middle of a written sentence, I were suddenly TO SHOUT AT YOU IN CAPITAL LETTERS or to wink at you in italics before going about my business.

There's a venerable tradition for this technique of "direct address" in the theater (at least in moderation). Here, though, it has the effect of forcing the otherwise masterful actors to ingratiate themselves before us repeatedly, and it inspires many of them to embellish their forced rapport with us with winks and nods and grimaces.

This is unfortunate, for it takes some performances over the top: Edith Meeks, making a welcome return to People's Light as the arch and sarcastic maid Dorine, doesn't need to be so in our face to be arch and sarcastic; and Benjamin Lloyd approaches camp as the angry son Damis.

Contrast these performances with the comic scenes that depend more on character -- for example the delicious, comic love duet between the daughter Mariane(Susan McKey) and her soon-to-be-ex-fiance Valre (David Ingram), in which the two are so noble in acquiescing to losing one another that they each start to feel rejected by the other's seeming coldness.

Fortunately, the direct addresses to the audience don't damage Greg Wood's performance of the title character -- a religious hypocrite who is taken in by, and in recompense ruthlessly takes in, the gullible burgher Orgon (Stephen Novelli) and his family. I did not see Wood's portrayal of the role in the P.A.R.T. production several years ago, but here he is marvelously charming and unctuous, simultaneously arrogant and self-effacing, so confident of his duplicitous talents that, when exposed by Damis for coming on to Orgon's wife Elmire (Mary Elizabeth Scallen), he knows that he can get more mileage out of confessing to it than from denying it.

The direct-address technique does come in handy in two scenes. The first is one of the most perfectly conceived and exquisitely written comic scenes in drama, in which Elmire, wishing to prove Tartuffe's hypocrisy to her husband, invites Tartuffe to resume his seduction of her on top of a table while Orgon hides underneath. Here it's a good thing that the otherwise speechless Orgon shares with us his reaction to the seduction taking place only a few inches above his head, allowing us to see first shock, then betrayal, then a despair so deep that he is unable to take his cue and interrupt -- much to the discomfiture of his wife, now in the clammy hands of her seducer. This scene, with the finely tuned performances of Novelli, Wood and Scallen, almost makes up for some of the misfired slapstick and forced jollity of much of the first act.

And finally, the technique deepens the irony of the play's famous denouement, a miraculous happy ending so miraculous and so happy that we just know that life can never replicate it. When the rex ex machina arrives and good triumphs, the actor's confident asides to the audience make us all the more aware that there are no real-life defenses against hypocrisy, that the religious right can and will prevail even -- especially! -- when it is exposed, and that happy endings only happen in plays.

Alda Cortese plays the zealous matriarch, and Tom Teti is the voice of moderation (his brief scene with Tartuffe after the intermission is perfect). The rhyming-verse translation is the classic Richard Wilbur version. The scrumptious costumes are by the incomparable Marla Jurglanis.

-- Cary M. Mazer