Tartuffe by Molière. Translation by Richard Wilbur. Directed by Joe Dowling. Set design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Original music and sound design by Mark Bennett. Cast: Brian Bedford, Henry Goodman, J. Smith-Cameron. With Jeffrey Carlson, Philip Goodwin, Bryce Dallas Howard, T.R. Knight, Rosaleen Linehan, John Bedford Lloyd, Kathryn Meisle.
"A comedy in five acts," is how the Playbill for the American Airlines Theatre describes Tartuffe. Though this production of Moliere's play uses but one intermission, the first half seems quite a bit longer than it should, and it's not until late in the first half that it really approaches comedy and starts seeming like five acts instead of ten.
Everything changes the minute Henry Goodman steps onstage, appearing from the top of a staircase to begin to wreak his peculiar kind of havoc on the family of Orgon (Brian Bedford) with whom he is currently lodging. With Goodman as this character, who possesses a staunch religious fervor one moment and unquenchable lecherous desires the next, who could help but be taken in by his ruse?
Goodman's Tartuffe is a completely ordinary man - quiet, humble, and unassuming, like your brother or a coworker who just needs some time off to get his life back in order. He's a thoroughly understandable, likable, and even sympathetic creation when he needs to be, but deliciously harsh and base when later events in the play call for those qualities instead. Goodman moves effortlessly between the two worlds, a revolving door of deceit.
An audience familiar with Moliere knows where the truth lies, but there's little reason to believe any of the characters necessarily should. Yet Orgon's maid Dorine (J. Smith Cameron) sees through his hypocrisy, longing to expose him, a feat Orgon's wife Elmire (Kathryn Meisle) eventually accomplishes. Though, as in any great play, when that happens, their problems are just beginning.
And as long as Goodman, Cameron, and Meisle are front and center, there are few problems with this Tartuffe. Their sparkling, comic performances are exactly what's required whenever they're in the spotlight. But when the focus is on anyone else, there are few additional pleasures to be found here.
The production's most observable and severe failing is that it lacks a dramatic center. Goodman, Cameron, and Meisle are strong and bring great invention and excitement to their roles. The other performers in the cast generally don't, but none of these characters can anchor the story. That responsibility must be fulfilled by Orgon, and Bedford is not up to the challenge. His performance is a puzzle, for he possesses, at least in part, all of the attributes necessary. They just never fit together at the right time. He's stuffy throughout, but remarkably acute one moment and unfathomably dotty the next. You might spend a few minutes wondering how Tartuffe could possibly fool such a perceptive, intelligent person, then spend the next five minutes wondering how this Orgon managed to achieve the success in life he obviously has. No solutions to any of this are offered, and Bedford is left, lost at sea, trying in vain to hold the production together.
But in the absence of a strong Orgon, director Joe Dowling provides no acceptable substitutes. Oh, he's staged it acceptably, if frequently conventionally, and he does manage to get some decent laughs out of the show. (Not as many as might be expected for one of Moliere's greatest comedies, though.) But he hasn't provided what this production needed most: a way to bring such a disparate group of performers (and talents) together.
Bedford and Goodman seem to be performing the play in the same time frame suggested by Beatty's elaborate house setting, but the others have more difficulty. Perhaps this is due to the challenges of playing off of a flat Orgon, but little can explain away the modern mannerisms and affectations nearly every other actor brings to their roles. Cameron and Meisle mask them with their adroit comic skills, but Bryce Dallas Howard and Jeffrey Carlson as the young lovers and T.R. Knight as Meisle's stepson are much less successful, reminiscent of modern college students preparing for an elaborate Halloween party.
As part of an overall concept, this idea might prove intriguing, but without consistency, it just comes across as sloppy, making Tartuffe feel like it just got away from Dowling. His was able to coax effective - if functional rather than showy - work from Beatty and Brian MacDevitt (the show's lighting designer), some absolutely gorgeous costumes from Jane Greenwood, and entertaining and flavorful music from Mark Bennett. This all creates a cohesive, realistic atmosphere, which should prove an effective backdrop against the action of the play.
Yet, without actors who are capable of working with and for each other, who are all capable of defining the people of the world of the play, any play - even an established one like Tartuffe - can never be truly captivating. That's the case here, the show managing but occasional moments of brilliance, and only a few moments of genuine comedy. Though not without its charms, this Tartuffe would need more than the three it has (Goodman, Cameron, and Meisle) to be much more than the attractively appointed, run-of-the-mill work it is.