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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

trenchant message.

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

repertoire.

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

Tartuffe, American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42 Street,

New York, 212-719-1300. $40 to $65. To February 16.


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