The Circle in the Square's "Misanthrope," which opened last evening, is hardly scintillating Moliere. But it is good to hear once more Richard Wilbur's excellent verse translation after having last listened, almost a decade ago, to Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg grapple with Tony Harrison's later version in that updated "Gaullist" presentation, and there is the added advantage of Brian Bedford's mettlesome account of the title role.
Of course, Bedford is getting along in years, and he is so unflatteringly costumed to distinguish Alceste from his foppish fellows that, along with a developing puffiness in his features and a lank wig, he rather resembles an oddly-blanketed spaniel. But Bedford is such an intelligent, forceful and invariably entertaining actor that his Alceste is almost totally winning.
True, a stronger sense of Alceste's passionate attachment for the coquettish Celei Celimene would have helped. And though Celimene is a mere 20, at least an indication of seductiveness (Rigg's stylish performance had it) would have provided some desired spice. Mary Beth Hurt's Celimene, while capricious enough in demeanor and attractive in person, lapses at times into the flat speech of a Kansas flirt.
Carole Shelley's conniving gossip of an Arsinoe is perkily set forth. But David Schramm's Oronte, the poetaster of a lover Celimene plays off against Alceste, is too outlandish a figure by far. In his blindingly gaudy getup, he resembles a linebacker gone to fat and made up for a masquerade. Yet he reads his couplets with conviction, as does George Pentecost as that other dandy, Acaste (this was Bedford's role in the 1968 APA-Phoenix mounting). Stephen D. Newman is engaging as Alceste's earnest, despairing, but loyal friend, Philinte. And I admired Mary Layne in her few moments as Celimene's winsome cousin, Eliante.
Stephen Porter, who also directed the 1968 production, has staged the magnificent comedy with much less flair in this house's confoundedly unsettling playing area. Probably unwilling to take full credit for the tacky setting ("The Misanthrope" should have walls, impossible here), the talented Marjorie Bradley Kellogg has lent her name merely to "scenery supervision."
A halfway decent "Misanthrope" is better than none at all, and it is impossible not to take satisfaction in Bedford's vigorous, incisive performance and in Wilbur's felicitous translation.
The function of a classic is to remind us of eternity. Moliere's The Misanthrope with its timeless timeliness does just that. It examines society, particularly the wheels withing wheels. It is about hypocrisy and human behavior.
For the English-speaking theater Moliere offers one disruptive disadvantage. He was inconsiderate enough to write in French. Worse yet, he wrote in French rhyming couplets. As a result there was a barrier between us and him which, if not impenetrable, was certainly hazardous.
Yet last night at the Circle in the Square, there opened a brilliant production of The Misanthrope that was pellucid in its language, clear in its sentiment and even spontaneous in its witty rhyming. It had the verbal gloss of an original.
We owe all this to Moliere's remarkable translator Richard Wilbur, who by some process, which surely has as much to do with alchemy as literature, can take Moliere's plays and transform them into living English, while preserving the original sense and sensibility.
Moliere's hero is a blunt-minded fellow named Alceste. His main virtue is his main vice. He speaks his mind, and totally rejects cant and hypocrisy. Not only does he refuse to lie, but he abhors those civilized half-truths that we employ to make society work.
He is in love with a woman of surpassing beauty and wit - Celimene. Young, vivacious, with a tongue curled around love and life as if it were nothing but a witty rememberance in the making, she tortures him exquisitely.
How can these two - Alceste the improbably honorable and Celimene the impossibly realistic - ever come together? Moliere's play supplies the dusty answer.
Moliere needs actors in a way that Shakespeare doesn't. Moliere's plays - whether in French or in Wilbur's astonishingly deft translations - lie on the page awaiting realization. Shakespeare springs alive in the mind.
Stephen Porter's staging of The Misanthrope is beautifully conversational. It takes the play as if it had just been written and exults in its language and wit. What it does lack is attitude. The sense of a classic re-evaluated in its present time span.
Three productions of The Misanthrope have caught my imagination. The recent - well, comparatively recent - re-working of the play by the Comedie Francaise in Paris, John Dexter's similarly Gaullist version for Britain's National Theater, with Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg, which was seen on Broadway, and, best of all, Ingmar Bergman's great staging for the theater Royal in Copenhagen.
Moliere in Danish! I didn't understand a word, but Bergman's cold look at men, women and marriage explained everything. Porter offers no such insights - he just stands aside to give us gorgeous acting.
Brian Bedford's Alceste is a miracle of technique. A miracle because quite simply the process of technique, while dimly perceived, is virtually eliminated. He is marvelous. Just watch him. Here is a consummate actor - technically, and this is no unconsidered comment, the best in the business - going about his work.
If you care at all about acting you must see Bedford. The stage is his world. The rest of the cast is also immaculate. Mary Beth Hurt is such an adorably sexy Celimene that one never wonders why the world adores her.
Carole Shelley's acutely bitchy Arsinoe is also - despite a tendency towards vocal mannerisms - adorable, while Stephen D. Newman as Philante, Moliere's own special hero of moderation, turned in a splendidly modulated performance.
What sheer fun this is! In a season that has not given us too much to laugh at - so far - here pops up Moliere, aided and abetted by Messrs. Wilbur, Bedford and Porter, to show us that Broadway can still be alive and kicking.
Thanks to Brian Bedford, the Circle in the Square's new and excessively becalmed revival of ''The Misanthrope'' does provide a rough idea of why Moliere's bleak comedy endures. Mr. Bedford, an actor of sure-footed intelligence and reticent passions, provides a protagonist who, like the play that contains him, skirts both the ridiculous and the tragic. More important, his Alceste is a man with a mystery at his core. In concert with Moliere, the actor asks us to contemplate the troubling and often hidden ambiguities of the heart.
What makes both the play and its star performance fascinating is that neither of them allows us to be entirely sure of exactly who Alceste is. Of course, we know he is a fervent truth-sayer who can't restrain himself from telling off every trivial hypocrite who crosses his path in the moribund court society of Louis XIV. We know, too, that he loves a young woman, Celimene (Mary Beth Hurt), who seems to embody all the silly values he despises. At the end, we learn that he will even go so far as to lose Celimene, his few friends and a costly lawsuit rather than compromise his lofty principles.
But who is Alceste, really? Is he indeed superior to all the fops and gossips that he refuses to suffer gladly, or is he just a prig practicing a more pretentious form of vain self-aggrandizement? Is it intellectual integrity or some other reason that makes him retreat into utter solitude and withdraw from the human race at the final curtain? (And is he really leaving as he claims, or just bluffing? Moliere isn't saying.) Try as we might, we can never quite picture the identity of the private Alceste, alone. We can only define him inconclusively by negative means, by watching his often overcalculated responses to others.
Mr. Bedford dramatizes this central issue by turning his face into a figurative mask that only now and then cracks open to reveal, in Richard Wilbur's great rhymed-verse translation, ''the deep gloom and melancholy'' underneath. The mask is very funny - it shows us the scowling, often choleric glare of a savage wit in high dudgeon. The eyes have a ''malignant glitter,'' and we see them narrow in preparation for the attack on each victim. When the zingers come, they do so in a steely and condescending voice. It is particularly amusing to watch this Alceste make short work of the courtier who mistakenly asks him to criticize his sonnet. As Mr. Bedford makes sport of the poem's every flaw, he dangles the page of dread doggerel before its author as if it were a dead fish.
We first glimpse the mysterious Alceste behind his public, intensely verbal pose when he tries to explain his unjustifiable passion for Celimene to Philinte. ''Reason doesn't rule in love, you know,'' he says, no longer sounding snappish, but ineffably sad. Later on, as Alceste listens to Celimene and her attendants dither on bitchily about their social circle, Mr. Bedford sits down and seems to drift away, as if life had simply passed beyond his field of vision.
And when, in the final scenes (this production's finest hour), Alceste finally loses his lover forever, there's a shudder of virulent self-hatred as Mr. Bedford turns his back on all mankind. We realize that, instead of being the best man in a rotten crowd, this fellow may be the most pathetically lost: he's so busy being ruthlessly ''honest'' about others that he can no longer locate his own honest self. As we contemplate this perhaps hopelessly distorted man, we see that ''The Misanthrope,'' three centuries old, remains an entirely contemporary vision of the price thinking people can pay for either accepting or abjuring the restrictive coordinates of what we call civilization.
Fine as Mr. Bedford is, his Alceste isn't quite perfect. Wearing a period wig that somehow gives him the look of Ben Franklin, he seems to be more paternally than lustfully attracted to Celimene. As for the non-Bedford aspects of the evening, they're generally not egregious, but they are a shade or two too flat.
That usually reliable director, Stephen Porter, is a past master of the Circle in the Square's difficult space, but this time, working on a mostly empty stage floor, he keeps repeating the same choreographic patterns. After a while, we begin to feel we're looking down on Roseland on an all-foxtrot night. A larger difficulty is the air of campiness that pervades much of the supporting cast. If the star is playing the play for keeps, it doesn't seem too much to ask that everyone else refrain from adding a gratuitous layer of artifice.
The two female leads - Miss Hurt and Carole Shelley, as the two-faced gossip Arsinoe - usually avoid the trap. Although Miss Hurt takes to repeating gestures and inflections, her Celimene is an alluring coquette with a musical voice; she also proves quite moving when she faces the mature realization that her little games have wounded Alceste more than she intended. Miss Shelley is no less touching when she tries to regather her pride after Alceste has summarily rejected her charms. Suddenly she becomes the aging, perennial spinster that she has spent the entire play trying to suppress.
The low point for both actresses comes during their big confrontation scene, which is staged as an all-too-arch catfight. In a similar vein are the characterizations of Celimene's rival suitors, Acaste and Clitandre, as well as the poetry-writing Oronte, all portrayed and costumed as clowns. By gilding these men's ridiculousness in this manner, the actors compromise the realistic urgency of Alceste's jealousy. At least Mary Layne, as Celimene's decent cousin Eliante, and Stephen D. Newman, as the dutiful Philinte, don't overdo, but their competent performances lack personality almost altogether.
Because the context for the title character is so unevenly rendered, one can hardly say that this version is anything like a fully realized ''Misanthrope.'' But it's a tribute to Mr. Bedford that he sends us home thinking less about the holes in the production and more about the darkness at the center of Moliere's play.