Click to read about The School for Lies, from Moliere’s The Misanthrope currently playing at Classic Stage –and it’s great!

… opposites attract …

There’s a magic to Moliere’s The Misanthrope and here’s what it is.  It’s a play in which just about nothing happens … and yet you leave it with a big smile and the sense that you’ve seen something delightful. What is it? The
language! It’s witty and charming: it makes you feel like you’ve been at a party with vivacious, intelligent guests.

The “story” is no more than a situation – and more amazing, at the end it’s not even resolved. We’re in Paris among nobles in the 17th Century during the reign of Louis XIV (not Louis XVI as per program notes) — Moliere’s stomping ground. Celimene and Alceste, with apparently totally incompatible personalities, are drawn to one another in love. Celimene is a wealthy, beautiful, spirited young woman, who loves engaging with people, and is courted by several men. She loves misanthropic Alceste, who’s brooding, super-smart, disdainful of the mass of humanity, and obsessed with the hypocrisy and injustice he sees all around him. She’s happy in the full action of the social scene and he wants to get away from it all to a desert isle —  and yet they love. They spar verbally – like Kate and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew but with different personality sets. It’s fun to watch and hear them at it.

To the benefit of his comedy, Moliere mixes real and fully rounded characters in this play, Alceste, Celimene, and Philinte, the reasonable friend who attempts to moderate Alceste’s romantic extremism, with
bewigged and rouged caricatures of courtly noblemen: Clitandre, a super-elegant, rich fop, Oronte, a posturing poet whose banal love sonnets to Celimene Alceste refuses to praise in the name of honesty – or is it that he can’t bear rivals to Celimene’s hand? Their obtuse pretentions are
perfect foils for Alceste’s sardonic gloom – and yield tons of laughs!

The men are better cast in this play than the women (although Pearl has some outstanding women among its Resident Acting Company). Sean McNall is a suitably astringent Alceste, risking free-wheeling playfulness without breaking character. Philinte makes the sober, balancing friend fascinating: I especially appreciated the easy way he paces the rhythms and hits the exciting and lovable rhymes of Richard Wilbur’s wonderful translation. Kern McFadden as Oronte does a simply perfect piece as the sonneteer, and Patrick Halley makes an amusingly languid Clitandre. Janie Brookshire, while bouncy as the energetic Celimene, doesn’t have the stage presence or diction to carry off this central character, and there’s zero magnetism between this prickly Celimene and Alceste.  I’ll bet in 1666 when the show first opened with Moliere playing Alceste and his wife Celimene, there was more chemistry!

The costumes are of the period but the set — beyond abstract — is so minimalist the actors are hard-pressed for a place to sit down. Dear Pearl Theatre, now that you’re in your new theater with audience seating on three sides of the stage, it’s time to shed the proscenium staging left-over from your former theater downtown.

The Pearl has given us a fine opportunity to see an engaging play by the great classic playwright.  If you love language, vitality and high spirits, you’ll have a good time at The Misanthrope.

The Misanthrope plays at New York City Center Stage II in midtown Manhattan through February 20th.

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