nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
September 24, 2007
Moderation's where true wisdom lies.
What we should be is reasonably wise.
You're living in the past. Diogenes
isn't quite the type for times like these.
So the mild-mannered Philinte prods his curmudgeonly friend Alceste, the eponymous "hero" of Molière's The Misanthrope. Alceste has more going for him, to be sure, than Diogenes—the ancient Greek philosopher, dubbed "the Cynic," who sat in a tub outside Athens, subsisting on a diet of onions and obloquy. He has a career as a widely-read and respected critic, his steadfast friend Philinte, and the sometime attentions of the beautiful Célimène, his proverbial opposite, who is as vivacious and flirtatious as he is cranky and convinced.
The Misanthrope, currently playing at New York Theatre Workshop, in a superb translation by Tony Harrison, and stunningly staged by Flemish director Ivo van Hove, is largely the story of the individual undoing of this perfectly mismatched couple. Molière's brilliant structure allows us to marvel at how a vibrant creature such as Célimène could desire such a cantankerous slob as Alceste, then a scene later pity Alceste—like all cynics, a sentimentalist at heart—for being smitten by such a two-faced tease as Célimène. Their polar opposition is reflected and refracted through the lens of a host of other colorful figures—among them, the young poet Oronte, sycophantic to Alceste and seductive to Célimène; the narcissistic critic Acaste, who believes she has captured Célimène's heart, mistaking the latter's social climbing for lesbianic intent; and Célimène's back-stabbing friend Arsinoé, who hopes her extreme piety will shift Alceste's romantic enthusiasm her way.
Here I shift my enthusiasm from Molière's masterpiece to van Hove's captivating execution of it.
Psychoanalytic essayist Adam Phillips writes, "Lives dominated by impossible ideals—complete honesty, absolute knowledge, perfect happiness, eternal love—are lives experienced as continuous failure." Phillips's clear-eyed and compassionate description of the misanthrope's plight is at the heart of van Hove's mise-en-scène: in a world where the price of praise has plummeted, where gushing effusion may signify nothing more than ill-disguised envy, is anyone or anything worth our trust?
For some such as Alceste (portrayed here with an understated wit and charm by the inestimable Bill Camp), the very air feels toxic, contaminated as it is with so many false compliments. But it is not just the eternal problem of human hypocrisy that he—and all the rest in their own way—suffers; there is also, to borrow a phrase from Sylvia Plath, the "zoo of the new": BlackBerrys, Macbook Pros, iPhones, YouTube. van Hove, and his equally-inspired partner, set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, have created a high-tech corporate purgatory, a world of information greedily gobbled up and then immediately hurled back out to us in large undigested chunks. Indeed, much of the play is captured live on video and replayed with a one-second-delay on three large individual monitors on the upstage wall (the flawless video design is by Tal Yarden).
The uniformly excellent ensemble have deftly calibrated their performances of this play to this particular milieu. By which I mean, their comic suffering is not broad and heavy, but as sharp and light as a laser beam. Thus it is hard not to feel deep affection for these folks who think themselves and each other—their world, in fact—so wretched. Jeanine Serralles's Célimène is a triumph of faithfulness—to every character she encounters; in fact, she gives lip service like it is her Christian duty. As Philinte, Thomas Jay Ryan instantly and consistently makes "reasonable wisdom" a desirable thing, and truly wants his friend Alceste to find the world a place worth improving, not condemning. Joan MacIntosh and Amelia Campbell, as the deeply self-impressed Acaste and the uppity underhand Arsinoé, make me wish Molière had written entire plays about them alone.
There is still so much to praise in the performances and the production in general. But hurried compliments—however rhapsodic—can seem disingenuous. I hope this will spur you on to see this grand work of theatre, to celebrate human imperfection in its most beautiful and blustering forms.