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Review: `The Learned Ladies’

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on March 31, 1999. All rights reserved.

We will never know what bright and clever touches director

Andre Ernotte would have embellished Moliere’s "The Learned Ladies"

(a.k.a. "Les Femmes Savantes") with, as he died of liver disease

before rehearsals began. One can only wonder whether Ernotte was attracted

to the play that many consider Moliere’s final masterpiece (written

just prior to "The Imaginary Invalid"), because Moliere wrote

it even as he was losing a battle with tuberculosis near the end of

his life.

Considering Moliere’s failing health, "The Learned Ladies"

is a happy lark of a play, an almost giddy satire. It appears as if

Daniel Fish, who took over the direction of the production that Ernotte

had conceived, may not have had enough time to bring some of his own

fresh and audacious touches to (yet another of) Moliere’s genteel

attacks on the narrow-minded and the phony.

Anyone who saw Fish’s lively staging of Shakespeare’s "The Merry

Wives of Windsor" at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival (set

in a contemporary prank-filled Borscht-belt hotel) could assume that

he would not be handicapped by awe for a classic. Even with the advantage

of Richard Wilbur’s admired and generally sparkling translation, Fish’s

staging presses toward an overly studied gravity. And the farceurs

entrusted to the work appear to be caught in a space neither freshly

stylized nor aptly Frenchified. Caught somewhere between a traditionalist’s

values and a modernist’s insecurities, this play of manners is denied

the outrageous excesses and exuberant flourishes it can deliver.

Although "The Learned Ladies" remains no less than the typically

amusing lesson in common sense that we expect and no more than the

gentle skewering of pretensions we may still admire, it would appear

to need more definitively shaped performances than, for the most part,

we get here.

And while designer Neil Patel’s barren evocation of a 17th-century

Paris home may make a statement regarding Moliere’s plan to lay waste

to synthetic facades, I can find no reason for Jess Goldstein’s parade

of drab costumes (save for the ingenue’s pink and peach gown), except

perhaps to make a fashion statement regarding Moliere’s exposing of

pretentious conceits.

Whatever pretensions we are exposed to, they are not as important

as the delight we should take in the polite blue-stockings whom we

observe swooning over classical Greek literature, science, art, and

poetry, and, in one case, men on the moon, rather than sex and marriage

proposals. Empowered by two hours of rhymed couplets, "The Learned

Ladies" are embroiled in the follies of irrational behavior.

Whether "The Learned Ladies" stacks up against Moliere’s more

familiar and more robust comedies like "The Misanthrope" and

"Tartuffe" is less important that how we respond to Fish’s

rather stolid and perfunctory staging, and to a mildly incendiary

line in the play, such as "I like a woman who keeps her studies

secret," as expressed by Clitandre, Henriette’s ardent suitor.

Forgiving the play’s potential to irk some of our more humorless and

rigid post-17th-century feminists with its theme "learning can

make great fools," the title characters are all seen as utterly

foolish purveyors of highfalutin talk.

The machinations of matchmaking get the play going when Philaminte,

the wife of the easy-going (read hen-pecked) Chrysale, selects Trissotin,

an indisputably worthless (read repulsive) poet, her personal mentor,

as the most likely husband for her daughter Henriette. Henriette is,

wouldn’t you know it, in love with Clitandre, a nice young man who

had previously wooed Armande, her now jealous but "learned"

elder sister. Into the mix comes the sisters’ Aunt Belise, a woman

whose lofty intellectual pursuits will not be compromised by her deluded

notion that every man she knows has the hots for her.

Of the more impressive turns, I rather enjoyed Jack Davidson, as Chrysale,

whose meekness is charged by his ever growing sparks of exasperation

("Is thinking all this household thinks about?"). Laurie Kennedy

gets the evenings biggest laughs as the spyglass-wielding aunt who

believes every man "worships me inwardly." Laurie Williams

elicits our sympathy as Armande, the older sister who is, for all

intents and purposes, married to philosophy. Judith Hawkins has her

comic moments as Philaminte, the shrewish wife "charmed by pedantry."

Kate Forbes, as Henriette, is no more and no less charming and demure

than the role demands. Mark Niebuhr was impressively straight and

unaffected as Clitandre, Henriette’s suitor who steadfastly backs

up his early declaration, "I have a body and a spirit."

In a staging that aspires to downplay comical fakery and play up conventional

reality, a bespectacled Andrew Weems, as the opportunistic poet Trissotin,

straddles the two and unfortunately gets nowhere. "Domestic servants,

it’s a losing game," frets the convincing Susan Pellegrino, as

the frazzled Martine, the kitchen maid who has been fired because

she cannot learn the rules of proper speech, and who, when she is

rehired at the end of the play, defends a woman’s right to be unlearned

if she chooses. Smile or not at "The Learned Ladies," there

are lessons to be learned.

— Simon Saltzman

The Learned Ladies, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. Conceived by Andre Ernotte and directed by Daniel

Fish, the play runs through April 11. $25 to $36; $10 for ages under

25.

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Simon’s version: "The Learned Ladies" (through April 11) McCarter

Theatre, 91 University Place For tickets ($32 – $36) call 683 – 8000


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