Fie, society

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  January 22, 2008

Sweet hustler Alex, who’s even more ambivalent than Mitchell about being gay, has a casual girlfriend named Ellen who’s just been pink-slipped from her job as live-in love to an older novelist. Here Beane, who is 48, would seem to be sending up the cynicism of the younger generation. At one point, Ellen announces of herself and Alex, “We’re 24; hope is dead.” This disenchanted Westchester princess is a piece of work. When she develops a predictable little problem of her own, Diane comes up with a cynical solution the younger woman is happy to embrace. But Alex turns out to be the most honest character in Beane’s wittily brittle comedy, which is rendered in Paul Melone’s stylish production with its bitchy edge honed but also with a human touch.

As Diane, Maureen Keiller, a proven master of poised sarcasm, first appears sporting the gun-metal-gray gown she wore to the awards show. It’s an apt color choice, since the character’s a tight Tinseltown cannon. Power is mother’s milk to Diane, who’s attached to her cellular earphone and little else. And Keiller, smile frozen in place, renders her a perfectly put together if not utterly unflappable movieland Mephistopheles who relishes what Alex labels “parlor games for mean people.” Robert Serrell brings to Mitch sufficient sincerity that his reversion to narcissism comes as a surprise. Angie Jepson conveys both the little girl lost and the shallow-stream piranha in Ellen. And Jonathan Orsini makes the boyish, bed-headed Alex smarter than he at first appears: he may not yet know what makes him run, but in the end he gets the direction down. As for “he, meaning him,” revenge must be sweet.

At New Rep, The Misanthrope, too, is for players of the game — or games. Chez Célimène, where the comedy unfolds, is a jumble of equipment for pursuing life’s pleasures, from tennis and croquet to music and chess. In Audra Avery’s design, a sweeping stair is set against a lattice of open and opaque squares alternating with bits and pieces of Renoir. Here the flirtatious hostess is pushed on a velvet swing as she delivers her barbed “paintings of character,” and, when angry, she pelts her dyspeptic suitor with more tennis balls than his big, denunciatory hands can hold. Alceste, of course, finds no more delight in such amusements than he does in the societal Super Bowls of gossip, backbiting, and flattery.

What makes The Misanthrope — part social debate, part romantic farce — unusual among Molière comedies is that the rigid, bilious, and humorless Alceste, his hard head butting up against his trivial heart, is as bad — and as risible — as the hypocritical milieu against which he rails. In a sense a double-pronged satire that explores satire itself (which had gotten Molière into some hot water), the play, written in Alexandrine couplets and devoid of cheapskate or enema jokes, is tricky to pull off. Neither does it have the traditional happy ending of classical comedy — unless you can get happy about a mismatched couple being saved from themselves. Still, director Adam Zahler, fielding in James Lloyd Reynolds an Alceste both pompous and foolish, fanatical and farcical, and in Amy Russ a life force of a Célimène whose brains and charm go a long way toward ameliorating her romantic duplicity and unabashed coquetry, almost pulls it off. There are a couple of amateurish turns that interrupt the controlled mix of pratfall and refinement. But when Russ’s frisky Célimène is torturing Reynolds’s dour, melting Alceste or the latter is bouncing moral outrage off the affable exterior of Steven Barkhimer’s Philinte, all is well.

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