For many years, Moliere was immune to the kind of "clever" thinking that has mauled Shakespeare productions over the last few decades. There is no comic writer who needs less help in getting audiences to laugh than Moliere. Apparently no more. A program note for "Tartuffe: Born Again" informs us that all across America Moliere is being helped. "Tartuffe: Born Again," our introduction to this new growth industry, sets the play about religious hypocrisy in the Bible Belt. Tartuffe is a TV evangelist. The action takes place in a TV studio. Dorine, a wily servant in Moliere, is here the floor manager. Does that really illuminate anything? No. It brings the great play into the realm of the cute. Nor does the gimmick really help a contemporary audience understand, say, arranged marriages. Ultimately, it's not really about clarifying the play. This approach to the classics is like a moment in "Animal Crackers" where the Marx Brothers are looking for something. "Maybe it's in the house next door," Groucho says. "There is-a no house next door," Chico reports. "Let's build one," Groucho suggests, and they do. These gimmicky productions are invariably the house next door. "Tartuffe: Born Again" is no exception. There are a lot of topical references in Freyda Thomas' coarse adaptation. The play itself, however, gets lost in the shuffle. In part this is because John Glover is so strong in the title role. In Moliere's version, Tartuffe is a sanctimonious grotesque gargoyle who victimizes a helpless noble family. In this version, the wonderfully suave Glover is a believable (if fraudulent) preacher tyrannizing a cartoon family Elmer Gantry in Dogpatch. The roly-poly David Schramm attacks the role of Orgon, the dumb father, with gusto, and Kevin Dewey turns the role of his anxious son Damis into an athletic event. Jane Krakowski manages to make his daughter sympathetic despite the coy Southern accent. Haviland Morris is superb as the helpless wife. It'd be nice to see her and Glover in a real production of the play. Alison Fraser, who might be a good Dorine, here can't transcend Thomas' smart-alecky writing. As for the gimmick, perhaps if this version were being performed in Memphis, it might seem gutsy. In New York, an attack on the Religious Right only reinforces the audience's smugness is that what theater is supposed to do?
Certain ideas are so obvious that they really should be shot down as soon as they come to mind. Directors with a penchant for French classics are unlikely to leave the Circle in the Square's clunky production of "Tartuffe: Born Again," which turns Moliere's religious mountebank into a televangelist, murmuring, "Now why didn't I think of that?" The odds are they already had, and wisely resisted the temptation.
Any recent revival of this dark 17th-century comedy has automatically drawn reflections on its abiding pertinence in the era of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. To set "Tartuffe," as Freyda Thomas's adaptation does, in a contemporary Southern television studio is to belabor the blatant.
And because Ms. Thomas adheres pretty closely to the structure and form of Moliere's original, right down to its intricate scheme of rhymes, the show works overtime in trying to make specific parallels between past and present stick. The whole thing feels like an exercise in squeezing a size-12 foot into a size-8 slipper. And every member of the talented cast, led by John Glover in the title role, seems to feel the pinch.
It was Robert Brustein who used the term "shoehorning" to describe ungainly topical readings of old plays. Sometimes such interpretations do indeed work, as in the recent film that set "Richard III" in Fascist Europe. But more often the effect is like putting Macbeth in a Richard Nixon mask. After you acknowledge that yes, there are certain similarities between the two troubled, ambitious leaders, there is no direction to pursue without tripping all over yourself.
This "Tartuffe," directed by David Saint (who did Anne Meara's "After-Play"), provides no new insights on either Moliere's original text or on the role of religious hypocrisy in America today. It's all one shrill, rigorously sustained joke, with very little consideration of the complicated chain of relationships that gives the play a depth beyond the farcical.
What's more, the contemporary details often seem wrong. Mr. Glover's evangelist, in a black, Italian-tailored suit and hair gleaming with pomade, looks more like a Bryan Ferry clone than a member of the 700 Club. And he's hard put to reconcile Tartuffe's fraudulent hair-shirt asceticism with the image of today's well-fed preacher-showmen. Pious charlatans may still be with us, but their poses have changed considerably. And why insist on the characters speaking in rhyme? Moliere's verse was rooted in a language that was as innately formal and regimented as the court life around Louis XIV. The lines by Ms. Thomas, a veteran of such adaptations, scan well enough, but they certainly don't seem organically related to the good old boys and girls onstage.
The Southern accents, which assume a strange variety of forms here, do allow the rhyming of "fraud" with "God." But only occasionally does the script traffic in the ready-made rhythms of preacherly spiels. More often, there's the sense of typical sitcom exchanges rendered in verse, just for the silly heck of it.
Example: Tartuffe, trying to seduce the virtuous Elmire (Haviland Morris), says heatedly, "All obstacles are gone; there's nothing to stop us: let's get it on!" In the same vein, "preacher's frock" gets rhymed with "what a crock."
The psychological center of Moliere's play is less the deceiver than the deceived; its burning question, why would Orgon (played by David Schramm, as a rich former politician who has bought a cable television studio) seek the sort of salvation he thinks Tartuffe represents?
Here, Orgon is made to say that his life had become devoid of meaning when "I saw the light right on TV," during one of Tartuffe's broadcasts. But this is perfunctory stuff. For the most part, particular characterization has been sidestepped for broad physical comedy that reeks of desperation. When this Tartuffe feels fleshly yearnings for the women in the play, he adopts a crippled walk that clearly comes from being in a state of sexual arousal. (The joke is repeated again and again.)
Indeed, most of the performances are defined by single-note bits of shtick. Mr. Schramm does a lot with jiggling jowls and blubbering lips of exasperation. As Orgon's son, Damis, Kevin Dewey plays indignant anger as a sort of disco Saint Vitus' dance. And as a wily, folksy Dorine (turned from the household maid into the studio floor manager), Alison Fraser, who while winningly at ease with the language, appears to be auditioning for "Pump Boys and Dinettes."
Patricia Conolly, as Orgon's prim mother, and Jane Krakowski, as his featherhead daughter, fare somewhat better. But only Ms. Morris as Orgon's wife, in the evening's most low-key performance, finds a convincing link between her character's Southernness and behavior. She has the sharply feminine air of a pragmatic former beauty queen, all too accustomed to fending off unwanted advances.
A spark of hope emerges when Mr. Glover first appears. He effortlessly exudes the creepy charisma the part requires, and he's terrific using his shark's smile in Tartuffe's calmer deliveries of oily rationalizations.
But this Tartuffe has a hysterical, psychosexual side that is way out of kilter with the rest of the show and makes one doubt that he could ever gull anyone, even the fatuous Orgon. (The subtext seems always to be: "Hit me! I'm a bad boy.") It doesn't help that his delivery and accent bizarrely suggest Katharine Hepburn going over the edge in "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
It probably wasn't wise to have Allen Moyer's set, a droll rendering of a Christian broadcast center, feature a bank of television monitors. One is often tempted to let the eyes drift toward the screens, in hopes of finding other means of diversion. These actors do, however, have the energy and presence to command our consistent attention. In this case, that is not necessarily a good thing.
Saint and set designer Allen Moyer have turned the entire theater-in-the-round into a TV studio that's been converted to televangelism: "ETERNAL BLISS!" is emblazoned on the walls in sparkly letters, everything is sky blue and billowy clouds, and the monitors are supported by silver cherubs. The call letters (forget that it's allegedly a cable studio) are WORG-TV.
The staff is in a tizzy because the studio's credulous owner Orgon (David Schramm) and his priggish mother (Patricia Conolly) have come under the spell of an infamous TV preacher, Tartuffe (John Glover, for whom this vehicle rolls). So taken -- in every sense of the word -- is Orgon that he is about to turn over everything, including daughter Maryann (Jane Krakowski), to Tartuffe. In fact, it's Orgon's comely second wife, Elmire (Haviland Morris), upon whom the preacher man has set his sights.
Elmire's brother, Cleante (Richard Bekins), and Dorine (Alison Fraser), the studio's spitfire floor manager, lead the assault on Tartuffe, abetted by Maryann's hot-tempered brother, Damis (Kevin Dewey). They prevail in the end, but not before a hilarious seduction scene in which Tartuffe comes very close to getting away with ardor with Elmire, while her disbelieving husband tarries too long out of sight.
The quibbles: Glover, who won a Tony last season for his wonderful performance as good/bad twins in "Love! Valour! Compassion!," has great technique and flair as Tartuffe, but no charisma. The look is Burt Lancaster's Gantry, but the delivery is Morton Downey Jr. -- smarmy and pandering, lacking the magnetism that makes you understand why otherwise intelligent men throw money at him and beautiful women succumb even knowing what moldy cheese he is.
Glover's great at projecting Tartuffe's calculating nature and adolescent horniness, but that's the easy part. This very theater hosted John Wood's Tartuffe 19 years ago in a thoroughly entertaining performance that placed the character right up there with Richard III in the pantheon of irresistible bastards. But when Glover exhorts Elmire to "give in!" to him, spitting out the words, his face suddenly, alarmingly snakelike, it isn't seduction, it's Bill Buckley swallowing liberals. There's no cunning in it. Nevertheless, Glover plays the comedy wonderfully, and in the Jell-O-jowled Schramm he has a perfect foil. Schramm (TV audiences know him from "Wings") plays Orgon in the Jackie Gleason mode of blockhead know-it-all ("You'll be the biggest name on pray-TV!") , making circles of his fingers and "om"-ing when he decides to tune out the truth-tellers around him. There was an opportunity here to make Orgon's attraction to Tartuffe a little more risque, but it's oddly overlooked.
Orgon's religious fervor is never credible either, making it hard to fathom what he actually sees in Tartuffe. The most fun to watch are Bekins and Fraser, who take no bull from Orgon, and Morris, who goes above and beyond the call to unmask Tartuffe. Krakowski is very sweet as the none-too-bright Maryann.
Saint overplays the slapstick, particularly with the puppyish Dewey. Nevertheless, the contemporary allusions hit their marks, and there are even references to Bill Clinton and a (not related) shady real estate deal. There's a lot of fun to be had, and a deus ex machina in the form of an FBI agent aptly named Loyal (Peter Rini).
Thomas' rhyming-couplets adaptation is an odd mix of period and contemporary speech. She's no Richard Wilbur, who I think would never rhyme possible -- or poss'ple -- with gospel.
The actors, too, can get hung up on the singsong; it's easy to fall into with couplets, the worst offender again being Dewey.
Still, the production -- with big pluses from Jess Goldstein's sexy costumes and Jeff Davis' fluid lighting scheme -- is slick and entertaining. It should click for the Circle.