nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 9, 2009
Jeff Cohen's new adaptation of Moliere's Tartuffe is terrific. But before I go into detail about the artistic excellence of this production, let me make a pitch that speaks directly to today's economic mood (and, indirectly, to the theme of the play): this is the best theatre bargain in town. For $18 you will see a fine, funny, timely play; beautifully directed in a unique and exciting space; with a flawless cast of expert actors (some of them vets of Broadway, national tours, and first-class regional theatres). Did I mention that tickets are just $18?
I love the space that Cohen has found to perform this show (along with several others that are part of South Street Seaport's Winter Theatre Season). It used to be a Liz Claiborne store, and you can easily imagine what it was like when it was filled with dresses and suits and coats and so forth: there's a big showroomy space in front that now serves as a spacious if spare theater lobby; and there's a sumptuous room in the back, on one side of which is a glorious staircase leading to a mezzanine. Said staircase now dominates the stage of Tartuffe and, with a little bit of elegant furniture, is the play's set. It's unexpected luxuriance tells us we're in a rich man's house, and Cohen integrates it neatly within the action of the show. His ingenuity (and set designer Alexis Distler's, also) is to be commended. We need more indie theater entrepreneurs like Cohen to economically convert more empty spaces like this one into viable theatre venues. (There's another bonus to what Cohen has done here: bringing audiences to the Seaport in winter has got to have some positive impact on the restaurants and bars downtown.)
Of course it helps that Cohen has know-how in the theatre directing and writing departments as well. He has made a name for himself transforming works by Chekhov into a contemporary American idiom without diluting their impact, and he has done the same with Moliere's famous farce here. The time is 1931, early in the Great Depression, and the place is New York City. But Tartuffe is still a con man who has fooled his rich benefactor Orgon into believing that he is saintly and modest and only interested in saving Orgon's soul. In fact, Tartuffe cares only for bilking Orgon out of as much of value as he can, not only money but Orgon's wife Elmire and daughter Marianne, if possible. Elmire, her brother Cleante, Orgon's son Damis, and the smart maid Dorine all see through Tartuffe, and Elmire hatches a bold plan to try to open her husband's eyes.
Cohen follows Moliere's script and blueprint faithfully (I won't tell you how it comes out, though; if you don't know, find out for yourself by seeing the show!). His adaptation is in rhyming couplets, respecting the original's meter (and happily the cast keeps it from ever sounding too sing-songy). His focus is on the story's key theme of hypocrisy and gullibility; Tartuffe's fake religiousness is a device, not an end in and of itself.
As I've already said, the cast is delightful. Keith Buterbaugh's Orgon is conflated with self-importance rather than simple foolishness, which makes him more of a modern and real character than a commedia exaggeration. Tom Ford's Tartuffe, on the other hand, is pretty straightforwardly rotten, wearing his pretended goodness the way a dedicated but bored actor wears a role; I liked the unambiguousness of his portrayal, ensuring that the play's moral compass is unwavering.
Christina DeCicco is outstanding as Elmire. Cohen's adaptation casts Orgon's second wife nearly in the Jean Harlow mold—sexy, confident, gorgeous, but with only the merest hint of the gold-digger; her intelligence, her good heart, and especially her integrity are all apparent. DeCicco conveys all of these elements in a performance that's funny and smart and enormously appealing.
Others in the cast that make particularly strong impressions include Deanna Hanson as the wise-cracking Irish maid, a very '30s rendition of the soubrette a la Ginger Rogers and Joan Blondell; Rob Maitner as Marianne's goofy, wealthy boyfriend Valere; Brian Linden as the long-winded Cleante; and Mark DeFrancis as a sturdy New York cop (he's sort of the deus-ex-machina—or more accurately, the LaGuardia-ex-machina—of the play's final scene). Special mention must be made of Tallulah Garcia Cohen, a lovely and elegant French bulldog who has a brief but memorable cameo as Babette, Orgon's mother's puppy, in Act I.
Even while it reminds us that greed is hardly a new phenomenon, this Tartuffe is so entertaining that it provides a welcome respite from the modern-day Tartuffes who seem constantly to be among us. It is, in every way, a breath of spring air in these waning days of winter. I heartily recommend it to you!