Of all the playwrights of literary distinction, only two are also surefire show business, Shakespeare and Moliere.
Moliere's stage canniness is especially apparent in the two minor plays in the Roundabout's "Moliere Comedies."
Neither "The School for Husbands" nor "The Imaginary Cuckold" is widely performed. They are among the many plays Moliere wrote and acted in during the years in which he barnstormed throughout the French countryside.
Designer Douglas Stein has used this bus-and-truck aspect of Moliere's career in his set for "The Imaginary Cuckold," which consists of the sort of wagon Moliere's troupe might have traveled in. (Stein has also designed a 17th-century pissoir, using canvas screens, to give a certain witty earthiness to the stage picture.)
"Cuckold" is based on a series of misunderstandings, in which a group of people imagine their lovers are romancing others.
The plot is as thin as angel-hair pasta, but Moliere, a master saucier, turns it into something quite delectable, building tension and human concern in the absurdest of situations.
Under Michael Langham's direction, it is superbly performed.
Brian Bedford, as Sganarelle, who is at the center of these misunderstandings, wears a putty nose and has a yellow forelock that springs up out of his bald head like a baby geyser. His padded costume and high, peevish voice make him look and sound oddly like Barnard Hughes.
Bedford performs the vulgar buffoonery with admirable restraint and subtlety.
He is superbly supported by Suzanne Bertish, as his shrewish wife; Cheryl Gaysunas as a virtuous young woman pining for an absent lover; David Aaron Baker as that dashing lover, and Remak Ramsay as the girl's father.
The cavortings could not be more fresh or delicious.
"The School for Husbands" is a less interesting play. The plot, about an old fool who jealously prepares a beautiful young ward to be his wife, is one we've seen a zillion times, and Moliere himself handled it far more skillfully in "The School for Wives."
Despite its shortcomings, it too has been deftly mounted. Without benefit of nose putty or forelock, Bedford's features here seem washed out and bland, the perfect visage for a smug Puritan. He is as funny starched here as he was padded in the other play.
Here, the virtuous young maiden is Patricia Dunnock, who handles her character's resourcefulness with great panache. Malcolm Gets is splendid as her swain and Remak Ramsay stalwart as a wiser brother.
Richard Wilbur's translations make both plays seem vital and witty. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes for both are exquisite.
What seems most impressive is how pungent, solid and downright entertaining Moliere is even at his slightest.
There are two riotously comic faces being put on view by veteran actor Brian Bedford in "The Moliere Comedies" at the Roundabout Theater these days.
Both, more or less, belong to him; both are, oddly enough, named Sganarelle; but one is smug, lanky, straggle-haired and dark plum-hued, while the other is innocently-baffled, bald-pated and potato-shaped.
The important thing is that both Bedfordian faces are pure Moliere - vibrant, funny and credible.
The high comedy of Moliere is the stuff of farce - a thinking man's farce to be sure, but farce nonetheless. Yet the style of Moliere is typifiedby his ability to transcend mere farce and smooth it into the horridly, if hilariously, recognizable patterns of reality.
The banana-skin the characters skid on may be ordinary enough, but the characters doing the skidding are the timelessly life-like caricatures of ourselves, our friends or, if we are lucky, people we do not like at all.
Last night at its home at the Criterion Center, the Roundabout offered two - thus the two-faced Bedford - of Moliere's early comedies, "The School for Husbands" and "The Imaginary Cuckold," and their joyousness and sheer good humor spun their merry, if cautionary, charms.
Why don't we see more Moliere? Audiences enjoy it, and of all classic theater, this is surely among the most immediate and accessible.
Yet the answer is probably fairly obvious - the style is a little difficult for our actors to assume without windily unconvincing affectation, and, even more, the plays, most of them written in rhyming Alexandrine couplets, are devilishly difficult to translate.
In this new instance - involving a Moliere double bill of plays - familiar in the study but very rarely staged in the English-theater - director Michael Langham has gathered together a likable and likely cast led by the redoubtable Bedford, North America's premier classic actor.
And perhaps even better to the point, the poet Richard Wilbur, translator extraordinary and Moliere specialist, has come up with translations that have the freshness of life about them, and most effectively make Moliere stageworthy in our language and for our time. Bingo!
Scholars will tell you that Moliere's triumph was to take the old French romanesque comedy with all its complex entanglements, and fuse it with stock characters from the old commedia and common farce, turning it into a new, or newish, form of high comedy.
Indeed, that's what he did. But what is really significant today is that he gave 20th-century actors from Louis Jouvet to Brian Bedford, the opportunity to show audiences the absurdities, foibles and petty jealousies of their own world.
The two plays - written within a year of one another - are slightly different in style. "The School for Husbands" (1661) is the story of two brothers, Sganarelle and Ariste, who are guardians to young girls they eventually wish to marry.
The puritanical Sganarelle is stern and repressive in overseeing Isabelle, while Ariste, the elder brother, takes a more free-hearted view of his duties, letting his ward, Leonor, find out about the world for herself.
Isabelle repays the debt by making Sganarelle a dupe and unwitting go-between for herself and her young lover, whereas Leonor, weary of the artificialities of society, pledges herself to wed her elderly but free-spirited guardian.
"The Imaginary Cuckold," written a year earlier, is less of a comedy of manners than a beautifully contrived vaudeville of errors, in which Sganarelle (a very different fellow, despite the familiar name) is persuaded by seemingly fair evidence that his wife has taken a young lover.
Both are adorable plays - the rigid hypocrisy of Sganarelle in "Husbands" might foreshadow Tartuffe, while the other Sganarelle's musings on honor in "Cuckold" are worthy of Shakespeare's Falstaff; Moliere certainly knew how to write a part for himself, which is how both of these roles originated.
Langham, much helped by Douglas Stein's settings (particularly the less stylized, more place specific setting for "Cuckold") and Ann Hould-Ward's convincing costumes, has staged both plays with wit and elegance, obtaining a neat sense of ensemble from most of the company, with the dependable Remzk Ramsay and the promising Patricia Dunnock and David Aaron Baker outstanding.
But it is Bedford's night, and he carries it with a flourish and a masterly sense of comic timing - whether he is addressing his fate or the audience. More than 20 years ago, Bedford won a Best Actor Tony Award for playing Moliere - history could repeat itself in 1995.
The funniest, wisest, most engaging new show in town is more than 300 years old and in verse. Not blank verse but rhymed couplets, which, if spoken by amateurs, can numb the mind faster than Valium. It's the Roundabout Theater Company's rollicking production titled "The Moliere Comedies," which pairs "The School for Husbands" (1661) with "The Imaginary Cuckold" (1660), and it opened last night at the Criterion Center.
Though Moliere is generally acknowledged to be France's greatest dramatist, he isn't easily translated. That means he travels reluctantly or, when crossing the Atlantic, less well than goat cheese. Now, using Richard Wilbur's American translations, Brian Bedford, the star, and Michael Langham, the director, have pooled their resources to give us two grand farces that are much more than academic approximations of the originals. They have lives of their own.
Mr. Bedford, last seen here in Mr. Langham's highly praised 1993 production of "Timon of Athens," is the most visible hero of "The Moliere Comedies," giving what are possibly the two best performances by any actor on Broadway at the moment. He's twice priceless as characters who, by coincidence, both happen to be named Sganarelle.
First, in "The School for Husbands," he's a hilarious prig, a pompous member of the 17th-century Paris bourgeoisie, a man who stands proudly outside the frilly fashions and loose morals of the age. Yet he's duped into acting as the unknowing go-between in a courtship that he himself has forbidden. This Sganarelle is at least 20 years older than his pretty ward, Isabelle, whom he's bringing up in near servitude to be his wife. Blissfully inobservant boob that he is, he has no idea that Isabelle is using him to carry messages to her young lover.
Sganarelle chuckles with pleasure at each new bit of evidence of what he takes to be her love for and fidelity to him. He can't resist confiding to the audience the details of his latest doomed stratagem to send the would-be suitor packing. Sometimes he gives a little dance of triumph as he earnestly misunderstands what's really going on. Misplaced confidence hasn't been so funny since Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy wrecked a grand piano trying to haul it up a small hill.
The Sganarelle of "The Imaginary Cuckold," which is set in the provinces, is a husband outraged by what he perceives, incorrectly, to be his wife's infidelity, though he would much prefer not to be forced to defend his honor. It's not that he's afraid, he tells the audience in one of the play's most grandly contradictory monologues, only that, when the chips are down, he thinks "it's better to be cuckolded than dead."
In Mr. Bedford's performance, which is as broad as it is rich, this second Sganarelle is a baggy-britches burlesque comic, totally unaware that he's a figure of monumental ineptitude. He's also a splendid sight gag, not immediately recognized by the audience that has just watched Mr. Bedford in "The School for Husbands."
The provincial Sganarelle is almost as wide as he is tall. He has a distinct bulb at the end of his nose. Atop his head, there are only a few wisps of hair, clown-red, which is in character. When he walks you have the impression that his knees are only six inches above his ankles. When he runs, he seems to be in furious slow motion, as he if were trying to retreat while still going forward. He's the original Cowardly Lion.
Poor old Moliere: he was only 52 and one of the most celebrated figures of his time when he died in 1673. Yet much like the Sganarelles in these plays, he did not fare well with women. At the age of 40, he entered into what one biographer calls "a most injudicious marriage" with Armande Bejart, described as "a spoilt child of 18, capricious, flirtatious and entirely lacking in affection." Because some of his most lethal comedies about infidelity were written before his marriage, it might not be too far off the mark to see them as prophecies waiting to be self-fulfilled.
Though Mr. Bedford is the commanding presence in "The Moliere Comedies," Mr. Langham has surrounded him with a production that moves at dizzy speed and with effervescent humor. Then, too, there are Moliere's texts as Mr. Wilbur brilliantly translates them.
The language is pure as well as sometimes discreetly colloquial. When, through the line readings, we're asked to be aware of the couplets, it's only because the rhymes reinforce the comic point. Mr. Wilbur, a former American poet laureate (1987-1988), doesn't strain to update Moliere and somehow make him relevant. He respects Moliere as a man of a particular time and place, and serves him without resorting to anachronistic tricks. Mr. Wilbur trusts the genius. The result: These comedies stand to delight contemporary audiences almost as much as they did the standees at Louis XIV's old Palais-Royal.
Of the supporting actors, all of whom double in both plays, the most effective are Remak Ramsay, who plays Sganarelle's wiser, gently amused older brother in "The School for Husbands"; Cheryl Gaysunas, who has a wit and an old-fashioned, wide-eyed beauty that illuminate both plays; Suzanne Bertish, who appears as a snappish maid in the first play and as Sganarelle's lusty wife in the second, and David Aaron Baker, who makes the puzzled young lover in "The Imaginary Cuckold" a seriously comic character.
Douglas Stein's set for "The School for Husbands" is imaginative and spare: three doorways on a Paris square, which is used by Mr. Langham in such a way that stage center can also be played as an interior space.
I'm not at all sure I understand the design for "The Imaginary Cuckold," which features a Gypsy wagon that serves as Sganarelle's house, some chairs, a urinal masked with what appear to be deer hides (the only jokey note in the entire production), and something that looks like the sort of wooden alligator you buy at Florida souvenir stands. The set doesn't make much sense, but it doesn't interfere with the tumultuous farcical action.
In most other ways, "The Moliere Comedies" delight. Here is classical theater as good as it can get without a first-rate repertory company or a time machine.
Michael Langham staged these two Moliere comedies with Brian Bedford to considerable acclaim last summer at Canada's Stratford Festival. The three chief changes in the Roundabout redux are a reversal of the order of presentation, the replacement of Roberta Maxwell with Suzanne Bertish and redesign of the set for "The School for Husbands."
Bedford is always a welcome presence on the New York stage -- he was last seen in Langham's Jazz Age, Paris-set production of "Timon of Athens" for the National Actors Theater in November 1993 (another replication from Stratford). These plays are a delight, particularly in Richard Wilbur's typically ticklish translations -- ticklish in that his elegant rhyming couplets are full of internal surprises, detonating minor explosions of laughter throughout the evening even when they aren't being delivered with the utmost care.
In "The School for Husbands" Bedford plays one of Moliere's favorite targets for skewering -- the smug, self-satisfied patriarch who lords it over everyone else as he's being sunk by his own sanctimony. To his brother Ariste (Remak Ramsay), Sganarelle (Bedford) boasts that the strict, protected upbringing he has provided his ward Isabelle (Patricia Dunnock) has made her a paragon of womanhood, so cherishing of her guardian that they are to be wed. Ariste, guardian to Isabelle's sister Leonor (Cheryl Gaysunas), has taken a more liberal tack, trusting Leonor to be honorable and marry well.
Of course, Isabelle has her sights set on handsome Valere (Malcolm Gets), and she craftily manages to turn Sganarelle into a kind of love shuttlecock, taking veiled messages between the lovers until it's too late. Bertish spurs the action with plenty of proto-feminist observations as Isabelle's servant, and it's all amusing, if harmless, comeuppance.
Bedford's wigline nearly wrecks the illusion, and his intermittently singsong delivery of the couplets threatens to capsize the humor. Moreover, a mundane set , consisting of three high white doors outlined in gold, drains off some of the comic energy.
Nevertheless, Ramsay, Bertish, Gets, et al., rise to the level demanded. And after the intermission the company seemed nearly flawlessly knit together for "The Imaginary Cuckold." Set in a provincial hamlet, it's a more standard farce involving miscommunications among two couples: Sganarelle (same name, same actor -- Bedford -- different part) and his big-haired wife (Bertish), and young Celie (Gaysunas) and her intended, Lelie (David Aaron Baker). They're all convinced they're being betrayed until a wise maid (Dunnock) untangles it all.
Looking for all the world like athatched armadillo as he dons armor to take on Lelie, Bedford here is at once hilarious and endearing. The set, centered around Sganarelle's tiny domicile -- the 18th-century version of a trailer home -- serves well.
Ann Hould-Ward's costumes and Richard Nelson's lighting for both plays are first-rate.
Still, there's something slightly perfunctory about the evening. Langham's staging is picturesque, but it's not involving, and as a result, we're never really drawn into these affairs. Competently played, "The Moliere Comedies" seems a bit by-the-numbers. Full of laughs, it lacks fire.