NATIONAL CITY — Displacing 17th-Century French comedy to the languid South of a century past seems to be in fashion this year.
First the Old Globe moved Moliere's "Tartuffe" to Kentucky. Now Lamb's Players Theatre has unveiled a production of "The Miser" set in a "decrepit garden courtyard" in 19th-Century New Orleans. Neither theater has had much luck with this experiment.
Director David McFadzean admits the shift is not a perfect one in his program notes for "The Miser." There is not a single black face among his cast, although Moliere's servant characters, if moved to the South in 1850, would undoubtedly be slaves.
Well, OK, we'll allow him that oversight--since McFadzean so graciously apologized in advance. But his stated reason for sticking with the plan--to enhance the romantic entanglements of the plot by moving the play to this "near perfect setting for love"--is not carried through by his actors.
Moliere's fascination was character, particularly the flaws of human nature that he so loved to exaggerate beyond absurdity, whether his target was religious hypocrisy ("Tartuffe") or blind devotion to money ("The Miser").
Done well, his plays are so funny that audiences for over two centuries have overlooked the preposterously implausible endings Moliere wrote to tidy up his stories into neat, happy endings.
Too often, Moliere's plays are mistaken for simple comedy. They are not simple--if the acting doesn't slice a perfect separation between caricature and reality they are miserable affairs, an embarrassment of flamboyant dialogue that seems grossly out of place in 1986.
McFadzean's cast is not terrible, and it is not particularly good. Their first handicap is the slowness of a Southern drawl. It simply destroys the sprightly zest of Moliere's style, already stretched to its limit by an English translation.
Worse, several characters are Italian or French. That left a few of the Lamb's cast wandering verbally all over the globe, trying a new accent with each scene. When they try to hold on to their dialect while speaking to each other, Italian valet to Southern miser, or French matchmaker to orphaned Italian daughter with adopted New Orleans drawl--what a mess!
Tom Stephenson works hard to become the tight-fisted Harpagon, but fails to find the illusive balance between laughably stingy and hatefully disgusting. Harpagon is the "star" of this show. We must find enough of ourselves in him to make him funny, watchable and perhaps instructive.
Mark Coterill is like unshaped clay as Harpagon's son Cleante--a character not yet molded into recognizable form. Robert Duckett, as his serving man, La Fleche, settles for lots of mugging grins, whether called for or not. Vanda Thompson, as the daughter, Elise, opts for noisy little oohs, ahs and ohs while others are speaking, a substitute for the silent inner mechanism of a genuine reaction.
Paul Eggington's variable accents as the love-struck Valere are so distracting they nearly destroy his acting strength in his final confrontation with Harpagon. Janine Zeller brings some cleverness to her role as Mariane, twisting in a few laughs by making her a most unlikely, klutzy love-object for Harpagon and son.
Pamela Smith is glorious in her pick satin ruffles and pert purple hat as the matchmaker Frosine. Her thick French accent practically drips off the aging trellises as she tries to double-cross Harpagon with her wily femininity.
Smith and Kenny Wagner, as the coachman-cook, Master Jacques, pick up the pace considerably. They are both superb.
There are other things to like in this production. Mike Buckley's run-down garden certainly provides the romance McFadzean hoped for, with its weedy trees and dead plants, fallen leaves and red bricks, mold-streaked fountains that really work, and peeling trellises draped with pink wisteria. His lighting design conforms to the mood, providing garden lanterns and golden light streaming through real glass windows suspended above the 360-degree stage.
Sound designer David Carminito lays on a too-heavy hand with the melodramatic string selections. Costumer Margaret Neuhoff Vida follows the script in dressing Harpagon down and his son Cleante up, then adds plenty of color with hooped skirts and ruffles for the women.
While the Southern locale and the uneven acting work against this production, "The Miser" still offers moments of delight. The sparkling pace needed to bring it out of the doldrums may yet emerge if the actors come to some agreement as to just what style they're striving for--American melodrama or French comedy of humors--then settle in with more of an ensemble attitude.
"THE MISER" By Moliere. Translation by A.R. Waller. Directed by David McFadzean. Costume design by Margaret Neuhoff Vida. Scenic and lighting design by Mike Buckley. Sound design by David Carminito. Stage manager is Anna Plassmann. With Paul Eggington, Vanda Thompson, Mark Coterill, Tom Stephenson, Robert Duckett, Kurt Reichert, Pamela Smith, Kenny Wagner, Janine Zeller, Duane Causie. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through Aug. 23, at Lamb's Players Theatre, 500 Plaza Blvd., National City.