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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the February 5, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `Tartuffe’
Moliere had his problems with "Tartuffe." At
its premiere, King Louis XIV was so enraged that he refused the play
a license for further performances. Condemned by the Catholic hierarchy,
Moliere’s ferocious attack on religious hypocrisy provoked such violent
reactions from the French Parliament and clergy that the play and
the theater were closed. Only later, after the title was changed to
"the Imposter," did the play find the success it deserved.
"Tartuffe" now stands redeemed for the ages as one of the
great comic works of dramatic literature. And when it is staged and
performed with vigor and panache, as it is by the Roundabout company,
it rewards the audience with its uproariously funny text and ferociously
If we are to give Moliere proper credit for his dramatic genius, are
we not also obligated to do the same for the incomparable Richard
Wilbur, whose English verse translation has remained peerless? Wilbur’s
translation anchors this handsome and exuberant production that stars
Henry Goodman and Brian Bedford, two of the finest actors of the classic
While the numerous productions of "Tartuffe" in recent years
seem to outnumber many equally fine plays in the Moliere canon, this
one under the direction of Joe Dowling’s is a delight and worthy of
attention. The plot, in which Orgon, an upstanding citizen, allows
himself and his family to become victims of Tartuffe, a religious
charlatan, races along with both grace and humor.
Set within the confines of Orgon’s Paris townhouse, elegantly evoked
by set designer John Lee Beatty, the first act is spent waiting for
Tartuffe’s entrance, which we know from experience is akin to the
second coming. The besieged household has time to inform us on how
each member feels about the presence of this pious hypocrite. The
wait is half the fun given the delightful performances. Notable is
John Bedford Lloyd as Cleante for his clear, precise performance,
that complements the more affected pretensions of the others.
Goodman (unceremoniously discharged during his break-in period as
Nathan Lane’s successor in "The Producers"), has returned
to Broadway as Tartuffe, a role that gives him plenty of space to
demonstrate his artfully idiosyncratic acting. Not quite the larger-than-life
image usually given the falsely pious con artist, Goodman presents
a more immediately unctuous presence, as he puts the move on the housemaid
Dorine and her mistress Elmire. His off-putting demeanor as he dominates
the action, is notable for its restraint. All the action, each bit
of business, and every expression reveals the company’s keen sense
of technique and style. This is a case where our laughter is not begged
but rather arises spontaneously.
With the opening monologue offered by a stiff-necked Rosaleen Linehan,
as Madame Pernelle, the tone is set for the excellent versifying to
come. One can only rejoice in listening to actors who know how to
avoid stressing the rhyming word in a couplet and who make it their
mission to trust the text. The satiric, yet substantial, subtext of
Moliere’s masterpiece is well served.
The family that Tartuffe has ensnared has much to contribute. Oblivious
to Tartuffe’s deception, the father Orgon (Bedford) tries and fails
(thank goodness) to convince his wife, son, daughter, brother-in-law,
and servant of Tartuffe’s piety and sincerity. It is his family’s
attempt at making him see the light that is the crux of the play.
Bedford, whose more than 20 Broadway production culminated with his
induction into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, is a model of blind
gullibility. As the outspoken maid Dorine, J. Cameron Smith hilariously
discharges her blunt and crucial criticism.
As the daughter Mariane, whom Orgon wants to marry off to Tartuffe
instead of to her real sweetheart Valere, Bryce Dallas Howard makes
the case for charming simplemindedness. As Valere, Jeffrey Carlson
adopts a comically intended caricature of foppish manhood. Howard
and Carlson have the play’s most rollicking time in the lover’s feisty
confrontation scene. The radiant Kathryn Meisle, as Orgon’s wife,
whose presence is always sublime, makes the most of her charms in
the famous seduction scene. Go and be seduced. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.
— Simon Saltzman
New York, 212-719-1300. $40 to $65. To February 16.
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