- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

David Marks may very well be, aside from Floyd King, the area’s most gifted physical comedian. He has the physique of a John Belushi, yet perched on legs as shapely and strong as a dancer’s. His face is like a silent movie, and the emotions flicker by rapidly, yet each one is sharp and distinct. Mr. Marks also has one of those voices that can convey subliminal malice with a mere groan or a cough.
  
  Mr. Marks seems tailor-made for the full-body mayhem of Moliere’s “The Miser” and its lead role, Harpagon, the enduring penny pincher who would not subscribe to the adage “You can’t take it with you.” The aged Harpagon does plan to take it with him, and toward that end never lets it out of his sight for a waking moment.
  
  Heirs, schmeirs Harpagon has no intention of leaving his children a sou, obliging his clownishly overdressed son, Cleante (Jon Cohn), to obtain money from unscrupulous sources and his daughter, Elise (Susan Lynskey), to take desperate measures to escape.
  
  Both children are rich in love, however; Cleante with the lovely and unspoiled Mariane (Meg Taintor) and Elise with Valere (Christopher Yates), a noble-in-hiding who is in service to Harpagon. Their marriage plots are ambushed when Harpagon decides to remarry and chooses Mariane, much to his son’s disgust and despair.
  
  Will true love win out? Of course it will, this being a comedy. Because it is a Moliere farce, and thus fiercely pragmatic, the take-home moral is that love lies in many places: in the heart and in the bank book.
  
  Harpagon’s love affair with moola ranks up there with Romeo and Juliet, Tristram and Isolde, and Abelard and Heloise. The Olney Theatre Center for the Art’s production of “The Miser,” directed with affable charm by Halo Wines, even includes a love scene between Harpagon and his coffer, in which he clasps and caresses the wooden box with such ardor you wonder if he is going to burst into “Oh, Sweet Mystery of Life.”
  
  Wacky moments like this make “The Miser” endearing, when it might have been estranging. Because Harpagon is, after all, a monster: This is someone who has 10 persons over for dinner and tells the chef to cook for seven, who takes a fiendish delight in trying to marry his comely daughter off to a geezer who says a dowry is not necessary, and who has his servants wear uniforms spotted with lamp-oil stains at least 10 years old.
  
  Mr. Marks keeps the Scrooge aspects at bay, creating a Harpagon that has you rooting for his comeuppance while oddly admiring a man who has raised parsimony to the level of high art. It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Marks squeezes every bit of value out of each line and situation. His unkempt hair flying and his spectacles smudged, he tromps around like Benjamin Franklin on a really bad day, spouting aphorisms along the lines of “a penny saved is a penny earned” that no one really wants to hear. Harpagon is a relic and he doesn’t know it; only his wealth makes him relevant to the people around him.
  
  What is delectable about “The Miser” is how well Moliere knew human nature. Love is something honored with flowery phrases and sweet kisses, but money is what drives us. The characters prattle on and on about money, mostly the lack of it, and how to get their hands on more.
  
  The trouble with Olney’s production is its unevenness, starting with the drop in energy evident whenever Mr. Marks leaves the stage. He is such a whirlwind that everything else pales in comparison. Everybody seems to droop a little when Mr. Marks is gone, and they regain some zip in their scenes with the actor.
  
  This flatness is pervasive in the first act, where the high-colored artifice required of farce seems forced, especially in the scenes with Elise and Cleante, who struggle to strike the right comic poses.
  
  Much of the cast seems to be rattling off their lines without establishing the bouncy pace needed to pull off the outsized outlandishness of a Moliere plot.
  
  The second act, however, contains some hilariously bizarre moments. One involves a fussbudget Justice (Eric M. Messner) who insists on following procedure in his crime investigation and countering every suggestion by Harpagon with a sharp “Irregular, irregular … No!” And near the end, when the ridiculous exposition comes fast and furious, Miss Wines has the cast racing back and forth onstage, as if caught up in the insanity of dueling operettas.
  
  MaryBeth Wise brings a cheerful weirdness to the role of Mistress Bete, a loyal servant strapped by her dual roles as cook and coachman. A slave to the truth, Mistress Bete blurts out her opinions willy-nilly, and her attempts to learn the value of lying are more comically confounding than liberating.
  
  If only more of the cast were similarly inspired, “The Miser” would be less stingy with the laughs.
  
  
  
  **1/2
  
  WHAT: “The Miser” by Moliere
  
  WHERE: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
  
  WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 18.
  
  TICKETS: $15-$35
  
  PHONE: 301/924-3400
  
  MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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