What better way to celebrate the sentencing of Michael Milken than a revival of Moliere's "The Miser"!
Written in prose, "The Miser" is not on the level of Moliere's best plays, but it has suddenly become his most fashionable play simply because of its subject matter, Greed. (This is the second production I've seen in the last six months, and these are the only two productions of the play I've seen in 16 years of professional theatergoing.)
Stephen Porter, who ushered in the Era of Good Moliere with his production of "School for Wives" 20 years ago, seems less sure of himself with "The Miser."
This is apparent in the very opening, a bit of mime in which Valere, who is in love with the miser's daughter, spirits her into a closet to tell her of his intentions. The moment, an addition to the play, is staged in a forced and coy manner. It undercuts the play by suggesting that we are in for an evening of little more than silliness and affectation.
The problem may be that the theater now is adept at commenting on greed, but not at showing us two people in unfashionably uncomplicated love. So the production is at its most focused when Philip Bosco as Harpagon, the title character, enters - his whole body clenched tightly, suggesting that every muscle, not just the mind and fingers, is grasping.
Virtually every entrance Bosco makes is preceded by a marvelous signature cough. Bosco seems to have explored all the musical possibilities of phlegm, and the series of coughs he produces seems a way to comment on the rich variety of forms an illness - be it hypochondria or miserliness - can take.
Bosco even manages to create a bit of sympathy for Harpagon. The man may be cruel, devious and hardhearted, but there is something pitiful about someone so obsessed with money. (Maybe such sympathy is also a symptom of the misdirected energies of our age.)
There is equally strong work by Carole Shelley as a matchmaker and meddler. If Bosco has become a virtuoso of phlegm, Shelley has always been a master of nasality, modulating her voice and diction to get the maximum mileage from Moliere's text.
Though I am not averse to nasality, I have never cottoned to Mia Dillon's. Her voice does not increase the winsomeness or pathos of Harpagon's hapless daughter, though Dillon does well when the vengeful children plot against their father.
As her brother, Thomas Gibson projects both the youthful foppishness the part requires (the 17th century had its trendies too) and an engaging, spirited exuberance. He is well balanced by the delicacy of his intended, Tracy Sallows.
Christian Baskous, alas, is a self-involved actor never able to convince us he is in love with Dillon, which is one of the things that weakens the first part of the evening.
There is an extremely strong comic performance by John Christopher Jones who is both Harpagon's cook and coachman.
By the second act, when the play itself gathers momentum, the production becomes as unpretentiously entertaining as its author intended it to be.
If you were under the impression that, historically speaking, Jack Benny was the stingiest man in the world, think again. By rights, that honor goes to Moliere's wickedly inspired character Harpagon, the mean-spirited, mean-minded and sublimely avaricious protagonist of his 1668 comedy, "The Miser," who doesn't have a generous bone in his body.
Now in the rich personage of a grouchily greedy Philip Bosco, Harpagon returned to New York last night at the uptown Circle in the Square. Benny, by the way, was perhaps funnier, but much less convincing or horrifying.
Although Moliere stands a grand second among playwrights in world regard, surpassed only by Shakespeare, he remains a comparative rarity in the English-speaking theater. Even "The Miser," one of his best-known plays, is, for example, not often given - its last major New York production was at Lincoln Center more than 20 years ago.
One reason commonly offered for Moliere's Anglophone neglect is the difficulty in translating felicitously his elegantly rhyming couplets - but even this does not wash with "The Miser," for the play, based on a Roman original by Plautus, as were so many European comedies of the 16th and 17th centuries, was written in prose.
Still, we must be grateful for small mercies, and in the past Circle in the Square has given us a couple of Moliere productions - including a "Tartuffe" with a virtuosic John Wood giving us a monumental account of that eponymous hypocrite - and now places us further in its debt with this clear if modestly unremarkable production of "The Miser."
The play itself - a farce derived from the already dying slapstick style and conventions of commedia dell'arte, but given the serious undertones of bitter satire - has not the universal appeal of Moliere's more human comedies.
Harpagon is a monster who we can hardly identify with (at least Plautus gave his original miser a background of grinding poverty, basing his avarice as much on fear as on greed), and the outwitting of the old by the young, particularly when aided by the fortuitous intervention of unexpectedly discovered relations, is not now the stuff of natural laughter.
We are too far away from such conventions either to accept them easily, or, more knowingly, delight in their very contrivance. The comparative complexity of Jonson's "Volpone" - or Jack Benny re-runs - are nowadays more acceptable studies of niggardliness and materialism in action.
Circle in the Square - particularly when it does not use its back wall for its playing area, truly moving into the total round or, in this odd case, total rectangle - is not ideal for certain proscenium-style plays - Moliere, I would have said, among them.
But the director Stephen Porter, an old Moliere hand, does a dexterous best with the staging, the translation by John Wood (no relation to the actor) proves fluent and unaffected, James Morgan's vestigial settings are vaguely appropriate, and Gail Brassard's costumes at least generically acceptable.
The performances - except in three instances - are so-so, some more so than others. Adam Redfield - a little too obviously wide-mouthed - is pretty good as a resourceful servant, and Mia Dillon looks suitably bewildered as Harpagon's daughter, Elise.
But the three portrayals to cherish are those of John Christopher Jones as the amiably gormless coach/chef of Harpagon's menage, a man to whom honesty and roguery prove equally of non-avail, and, more particularly, Carole Shelley and Bosco himself, who are the twin joys of the production.
Shelley as Frosine, Moliere's delicate mixture of matchmaker and pimp, is a delight; such elegancies as her arch accent and arched eyebrows, her mannered mannerisms and carefully articulated pauses, make the playwright's archetypal suggestion into a vivid character.
As for Bosco - who, if memory serves, was Anselme, the plot's deus ex machina of a fortuitously found father, in the last Lincoln Center staging - has never been better.
Sometimes as an actor he suffers from a certain orotund self-satisfaction, leading to an easily ingratiating superficiality - best-suited to Shaw. But here he attempts something harsher and funnier.
His Harpagon is a man madly in love with money - the touch and feel of it. It is an obsession that makes penny-pinching normal, and ranks riches beyond godliness. Bosco refuses to play Harpagon as simply an eccentric, but instead stresses the mad logic of his tortured values.
And at the end he is somehow triumphant - he has his crock of gold restored intact, his daughter married off without a dowry, and his son rendered eminently disinheritable. The look of manic, satiated satisfaction on his face is as good as the fearful way earlier in the play in which he grandly confronted the audience (here is a use for theater-in-the-round) accusing us, almost individually, of stealing his money.
Quite mad. Quite true. Quite wonderful.
The spitting up of phlegm may not be everyone's idea of a laugh riot, but it is unmistakably the comic peak in the Circle in the Square's catch-as-catch-can revival of ''The Miser.''
The eruption comes shortly after Philip Bosco, cast in the title role of Harpagon, has been bamboozled by a double-dealing matchmaker into believing he has won the affections of a young woman who is actually pining for his son. Harpagon, an elderly man with a stoop, a bespectacled squint and a lifeless mop of silver hair, is so eager to believe this genuinely incredible news that he starts to strut about like a rake, all but breaking into a jig in celebration of his newly discovered sexual appeal. But the exertion activates his catarrh, and he is soon reduced to his usual decrepit posture by a coughing fit so loud that not even the accompanying uproar of the audience can drown it out.
What's so funny? Part of the laughter can be attributed to Mr. Bosco's masterly technique: Just when it seems he can put away his extravagantly soiled white handkerchief, another roar rises from deep within his lungs, more explosively gutteral than the one before. Yet Moliere deserves credit, too. The character of Harpagon, as self-deluded as he is avaricious, is all the more ridiculous - and hilarious - for not having the remotest inkling of just how big a fool he is, even when the evidence stares him in the face. The coughing fit, by arriving at precisely that moment when Harpagon's vanity has become most overweening, functions like a banana peel, sending the old skinflint flat just as he presumes to pump himself up.
If there were more such moments in this staging of ''The Miser,'' the occasion would be a happier one. But the production has been guided with uncharacteristic sloppiness by the Moliere and Shaw expert (and frequent Bosco collaborator) Stephen Porter. Too often the director and his star seem to forget what they remember in the coughing scene - that Harpagon, the evening's butt, must not be let in on the joke, if the joke is to be funny. Mr. Bosco deflates much of the evening by wailing and sobbing in grave self-pity over Harpagon's travails, as if he were somehow imbued with a tragic awareness more appropriate to Shylock than to a role with roots in commedia dell'arte. (Is the actor's mind already preoccupied by the King Lear he will be playing at the Folger in Washington this season?) While Harpagon is undeniably pathetic - he would rather sell out both of his children than part with a sou - such pathos as Moliere will allow the man can follow only if the comedy comes first. ''The Miser'' lacks the dark shadows of ''Tartuffe'' and ''The Misanthrope,'' and this production is far too willing to mortgage the play's comic franchise to plumb for depths that are not there.
''The Miser'' is a cartoon, not a slice of naturalistic life, or a psychological character study. The author would rather toss in the farcical old Roman gag about separated twins reunited with the aid of a signet ring than, say, explore Harpagon's feelings about his late wife or the sources of his paranoia. The play's tone is defined by the fact that nearly everyone in it is a liar, scheming in some way or another to pry a lover or a fortune from the geezer's tight grasp. The false flattery, disguised identities and con games that ensue give the dialogue the high gloss of sheer facetiousness and turn disingenuousness into comic art. In one representative exchange, Harpagon and the steward Valere debate the dispensation of a ''treasure'' at considerable length without realizing that they are speaking at cross-purposes about two entirely different treasures. It is typical of the production that Mr. Bosco and Christian Baskous deliver this volley with the whine of escalating exasperation, not the effervescence of spiraling absurdity.
One cannot really blame the cast for such heaviness of attack, because its good actors seem to have been left to their own devices by Mr. Porter. The director's few attempts at establishing a high-comic sheen - a dumb show to open the evening, an exaggerated war of bows and curtsies between Harpagon and his daughter - are crudely managed, and the acting comes in a myriad of conflicting styles. Mia Dillon, as that sorely tried daughter, and Adam Redfield, as the servant La Fleche, seem to be winging their roles with a generalized jolliness, while Thomas Gibson, with longer blond ringlets than Ms. Dillon, ascends into camp of near-Cyril Ritchard extremis in his broad reading of Harpagon's son, Cleante. Better are Carole Shelley, who brings her crisp professionalism (if an excess of vulgarity) to the matchmaker, Frosine, and, especially, John Christopher Jones, as Maitre Jacques, Harpagon's cook and coachman. Mr. Jones is so funny as he mournfully describes his boss's underfed horses - ''they are no more than ghosts or shadows or ideas of horses'' - that it seems unsporting to question why he is the only American actor in this French play to affect an English accent.
Such other high points as there are usually emanate from the text's slapdash plot shenanigans or from Mr. Bosco, when he elects to lighten up. His funniest second-half bit is the long, eye-rolling pause he takes when he finally must choose once and for all between love of money and love for a woman. This is a Jack Benny or Phil Silvers moment if ever there was one, and Mr. Bosco squeezes it, as he had his coughing fit, for all the burlesque clownishness it is worth. Surely it would not have violated Harpagon's miserly spirit if this fine comic actor had been unleashed to hunt down some more cheap laughs.