- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

It is no fun watching a frothy farce that never catches fire. It is like being a lone cup of lukewarm Sanka in a room full of Starbucks'. Despite beautiful costumes by Deborah Dryden that look like the fanciest of French pastries, a set by William Bloodgood featuring chandeliers dripping with crystals, a gorgeous painted floor and some cunning performances, Arena Stage's production of "The Misanthrope" has few thrills.

Laughs are few and far between in director Penny Metropulos' elegant staging of Moliere's pointed satire about artifice vs. sincerity. While you admire the wicked wit of Moliere's rhyming alexandrines given a fresh, slangy new translation by Ranjit Bolt you are struck more by the cleverness than moved to chuckle.

Things even seem strained and desperate at times, especially in Michael Emerson's performance as the central character, Alceste. Mr. Emerson comes off as whiny and rather a weasel in the first act and does not improve from there. The script seems to fail him in the second act, so he reverts to enormous annoying gestures as if swatting off swarms of invisible flies. Alceste is the quintessential outsider, and although society is mannered to an obscene degree, is appears more preferable than spending five minutes with this disagreeable man.

Set in 17th-century Paris in the time of Louis XIV, the title of the play refers to Alceste, a man cursed by honesty and sincerity. He is unable to squelch his true feelings diplomacy and tact are strange bedfellows to him a tendency that gets him into all sorts of hot water with his friends, lovers and powerful figures at court.

Alceste's brand of narcissism is unbridled truth-telling and he is the founding member of the "Got a minute, got an opinion" club. "My loathing is as general as it is strong," he notes, but Alceste seems to save much of his vitriol for society at large, which he sees as a snake pit of rumormongers, hypocrites and heartless civility.

Ironically, Alceste's Achilles' heel is his love for Celimene (Nance Williamson), a malicious gossip who just cannot help dishing the dirt. Her canny, snippy wit called "cameos" by her many admirers is encouraged by two court fops, Acaste (Carl J. Cofield) and Clitandre (Larry Redmond). They are quite a pair, as embodied with ornate foolishness by the superb Mr. Cofield and Mr. Redmond as fashionistas who can outdress and outsnipe the ladies at the snap of a gloved finger.

Miss Williamson holds her own, portraying an intelligent and poised Celimene who rather reminds you of Madame de Merteuil from "Les Liaisons Dangereuse" a woman whose brains are wasted in a male-dominated society, so she resorts to gossip and intrigue to keep boredom at bay.

Her match is not the near-hysterical Alceste, but a fellow society maven Arsinoe, played with pinched perfection by Naomi Jacobson. Where Celimene is all smiles and sunny good cheer, Arsinoe is grimly, primly dedicated to the business of keeping people "decent." They clash over teacups in Celimene's parlor and the battle of vitriol is gorier than anything you have seen in "Gladiator."

Two other performances of note are John Leonard Thompson's unexpectedly touching portrayal of Alceste's long-suffering friend, Philinte, and Heather Robison's sweet, wise portrait of Celimene's cousin Eliante.

This production of "The Misanthrope" has many fine aspects, and it is a shame the overall feeling is of flatness. The pace lurches and stalls, and when something finally does get going, it is over before you know it. Moliere's message that the world is a hypocritical and truth-allergic place is as timely as ever. You only wish that the messenger had more gusto.


**

WHAT: "The Misanthrope"

WHEN: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.; through Nov. 3

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 S. Sixth St. SW, Washington

TICKETS: $34-$57

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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