How best to revere irreverence? The question arises as Los Angeles enters the next phase of an unofficial citywide mini-Moliere festival. The first wave included A Noise Within's "School for Wives" and the Actors' Gang's "Tartuffe."
Just opened are Andak Stage Company's "San Fran Scapin," which director Anne McNaughton has reset in a cartoonish Old West, and Circus Theatricals' "The Misanthrope," which goes whole hog with the period thing, including frilly ribbons on the men's pumps (costumes by Gelareh Khalioun) and harpsichord music as spiky as cactuses (score by Daniel Nathan Spector).
Moliere was no firebrand revolutionary, certainly, but he was more than a mere court jester to his patron, King Louis XIV. His best work skewered hypocrites and twits with a caustic acidity and detachment that still seems definitively French, no matter where his plays are set.
Even so, it's a bit shocking how much closer Andak's modest, knockabout "Scapin" comes to the Molierian mark than Circus Theatricals' elaborately prim and puffed "Misanthrope." In comedy, particularly Moliere, it seems that tone is all.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 04, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Misanthrope" -- A theater review of "The Misanthrope" in Friday's Calendar section incorrectly identified the actor who played the pompous bard as Daniel Nathan Spector. It was Adam Paul. It also said the desperate Puritan gossip was played by Catherine O'Connor. That role was played by Rebecca Dines.
Admittedly, "The Misanthrope," as its title suggests, fairly dares us to dislike its title crank, Alceste (Jack Stehlin), who is forever renouncing -- but never quite leaving behind -- the dissembling flattery of polite society.
What anchors him is his ardor for the incorrigible coquette Celimene (Yael Berkovich). "Reason doesn't rule in love, ya know?" he feebly explains. Moliere's project, of course, is to gleefully dismantle both Alceste's reason and his love.
Under Stehlin's direction, though, the play is stubbornly glee-free, bobbling dutifully along the ruts of Richard Wilbur's well-worn verse translation. It does offer some delicious actor's turns: Daniel Nathan Spector, as a pompous bard whose white face and abundant curls faintly suggest Linda Blair; Catherine O'Connor, brittle and touching as a desperate Puritan gossip whom no one takes seriously for a moment; and James Tupper, as a ludicrously handsome suitor who commands attention if not respect.
For his part, Stehlin makes an especially sour and dour Alceste; his climactic explosion and breakdown make an impressive show of all the actor's resources except the one he needs most: humor.
There's no shortage of good humor in the considerably lighter "San Fran Scapin." As the honey-tongued servant with "a special talent for butt-savin' schemes," as McNaughton's text puts it, dry-as-dust Andrew Matthews sports a faint Irish brogue and the dirty checked pants of a rodeo clown (costumes by Dean Cameron).
But he has more dignity and gravitas than anyone else onstage -- more than the creaky miser Geronte (Dennis Gersten) or his absurdly tall, callow son, Leander (Matt Davis), and certainly more than the sputtering Argante (James Andrews) and his dopey scion, Otavio (Michael Kirby).
The whole affair has a deceptively amiable flimsiness to it, from Terry Evans' Dr. Seuss-like painted backdrop to the often indifferent staging. But the play's sturdy comic rhythms hum along like chamber music under McNaughton's sure hand.
Moliere, it seems, is served best ornery, not ornate.
'San Fran Scapin'
Where: Andak Stage Company at the NewPlace Theatre Center, 4900 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: May 22
Contact: (818) 506-8462
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Where: Circus Theatricals at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions.
Ends: June 19
Price: $19.50 to $25
Contact: (310) 477-2055
Running time: 2 hours