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Don Juan

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Though well known as a humorist capable of provoking fits of laughter in his comedies, Moliere was also a dramatist of some repute. His interpretation of Don Juan, in fact, is particularly heavy on the drama and low on the humor. Perhaps, then, the new Theatre for a New Audience production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre is ideal, as it strips away practically every vestige of entertainment.

Certainly, the Moliere version is less thoroughly dependent on Don Juan's incessant womanizing than other interpretations of the tale. It finds at least as much value in the moral implications of his dalliances - the second half of the show focuses on this almost exclusively - but manages to tell, similar to Tartuffe, an interesting story about what hypocrisy is capable of accomplishing, and what the ultimate price must be for submitting to it.

But in order for the fall to register, Don Juan at his height must be pretty lofty indeed. It's the balance between those two states that director Bartlett Sher is never able to truly tap into; the production itself suggests Sher hardly even tried. The concept is provided loud and clear: A theater within the theater (designed by Christopher Akerlind), the set an enclosed box-type space with the ceiling shrouded in racks of coats and suits (Don Juan's disguises, presumably), the entire production presented as if in an improvised theatrical space, maybe a cramped cloak room. (Akerlind's lights, liberally tinged with a sickly green suggest the limelight of a similar time frame, and Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's costumes fit right in.)

Yet the production bears the hallmarks of a director who doesn't trust his material or his audience. Why must a stage manager (played by David Wohl) feed lines to the actors from a prompt box when they (very visibly and very falsely) forget their lines during the opening scenes? And why, scarcely before the action has begun, does a perfectly-positioned spotlight pick out a man and a woman in modern dress in the audience, making out so heavily that they must be asked to leave and paraded right by the stage (where Don Juan can ogle the woman), screaming their outrage (even invoking the name of the actor playing the title role, Byron Jennings) on their way?

These are cheap, dishonest laughs, and the do nothing to help Sher's theatrical conceit - Don Juan can, and will, be anything to any woman if it suits his purposes - come together. Sher even seems to forget it before long, which improves the production drastically. The second act is much more realistic, more acceptably paced, and much less artificial. Still, neither Sher nor his actors are successful at finding their footing elsewhere, most apparently due to the adolescent and lifeless translation of the text provided by Christopher Hampton that never manages to find an ounce of poetry or theatrical necessity in the script.

Jennings is well mannered and well spoken but never particularly sensuous or charming, and John Christopher Jones, as Don Juan's faithful servant Sganarelle, gives a performance of almost cultured disinterest. The play's most striking and memorable performance is given by Price Waldman, playing a ghostly statue dedicated to a commander Don Juan had bested years before. He has few spoken lines, but, through economy and sheer presence, makes his every second onstage speak volumes.

This production as a whole could benefit from similar economy. Even when a production is acceptably acted and designed - as this one is - the text will provide the real foundation for all the elements. When that foundation is shaky, as it is here, everything else will follow suit. Don Juan may don many disguises to fool his potential lovers, but no amount of dressing up will camouflage the faults of this Don Juan.

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Theatre For A New Audience
Moliere's Don Juan
Through April 13
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street between Seventh Avenue South and Hudson Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge