Martin Crimp’s version of The Misanthrope is mildly clever and mighty unappetizing. Originally done in London in 1996 and now updated and refurbished for Off Broadway, the conceit is to turn Molière’s comedy of manners into a modern comedy of unmanneredness. The flirt Célimène becomes the Hollywood star Jennifer, now living in London with the British playwright Alceste (name unchanged, presumably because it rhymes easily) to perfect her acting in the English theater. The Molière characters become the critic Covington (Oronte), the journalist Ellen (Éliante), the acting coach Marcia (Arsinoé), and so on. The play becomes a travesty.
Molière’s was an elegant, subtle social satirein exquisitely modulated Alexandrines (see Richard Wilbur’s masterly translation); Crimp’s is a broad topical farce, with smirking references to Lloyd Webber, deconstruction, Wittgenstein, Bill Clinton, L.A., etc., as in “Professionally you were accused of muscling in / on actors’ work (like Lee Strasberg did to Marilyn)” – note the shambling metrics, shabby mentality, and shoddysyntax. Similarly whenAlceste inveighs against “pleasing the voters Washington-style / by presenting a more balanced ratio / of serious politics and witty off-the-cuff fellatio.”
This is Crimp reaching for the heights. More often he is content with tossing in a four-letter word for wit, as in “He thinks of himself as the Delphic fucking oracle,” rhyming, all too aptly, with abominable. Again: “I mean could you really bear / to sit through another play by Ayckbourn or David fucking Hare,” updated from “by Stoppard” in ‘96. And again: “These two charming creatures / are worse than the Society of fucking Jesus.” This should give you a fair idea of Crimp’s versification as well as of his worsification of Molière.
Moreover, Crimp wants to have it both ways. Beyond mere persiflage, he also wants authenticity, with any number of facile seventeenth-century references and even turning the last part of the play into a fancy-dress party in Louis Quatorze costumes. With one foot in each period, he is able to put his foot in it twice.
The able Barry Edelstein makes his debut as artistic director of the Classic Stage Company with this unfortunate choice. Still, he has obtained a snazzy production from his various designers, and he knows how to move actors smoothly around. But the choice of the trendy Michael Torke to provide his customary cacophonous music was poor, and so are several of the actors. The trusty Roger Rees does much to make Alceste bearable with precise diction, polished movements, and general savoir faire. But he lets us have breakneck accelerandos and ear-splitting fortissimos rather too cavalierly, and now and then lapses into undue cuteness. Mary Lou Rosato is nearly as good as the Paula Strasbergish Marcia, and Nick Wyman does manfully by the loathsome critic. I find Crimp’s critic-baiting the sincerest form of flattery.
It was probably a coup to secure Uma Thurman for Jennifer, and though she looks almost as good as Nicole Kidman, she bares even less, except for a certain lack of talent. With her tall, sinuous figure, she slinks and tosses herself about capitally, but what comes from her mouth is rote stuff. The insufferable Michael Emerson, who made a mockery of Oscar Wilde in the wretched Gross Indecency, is no less smarmily gelatinous as John (Philinte), but rock bottom is achieved by Adina Porter, whose vocal and physical posturing, meant to be blasé, is merely blatant.
This kind of adaptation is wonderfully easy. In the next updating we could get: “Miss Thurman made her move back, marked attacca / to Hollywood, Pulp Fiction, and Gattaca / And we, in turn, moved past the bloated shrimp / who’d be Molière, dear Martin fucking Crimp.”