LE MISANTHROPE by Moliere; directed by Pierre Dux; scenery and costumes by Jacques Mariller; Music by Alain Margoni.With Bernard Dheran, Michel Duchaussoy, Alain Pralon, Francois Beaulieu, Jean-Francois Remi, Georges Riquier, Phillippe Rondest, Guy Michel, Berengere Dautun, Beatrice Agenin and Fanny Delbrice.
At the Eisenhower theater through Sunday.
There is hardly any starker, more sour moment in the theater than the conclusion of "The Misanthrope," when Alceste departs for the desert and the only company he regards as compatible with a life of integrity - his own.
This would be gloom enough for most playwrights to ring a curtain down on, but not Moliere. He leaves us with the simultaneous spectacle of Celimene, Alceste's beloved, being snared in her own wanton insincerity and facing an equally unpromising future.
All the potential grimness of this grim business - and a bountiful share of humor, too - were realized by the Comedie Francaise last night, and particularly by Francois Beaulieu and Beatrice Agenin as the two ill-matched (or perhaps perfectly matched) lovers.
Alceste and Celimene seem to be a wildly unlikely pair, but are they so different? Both, after all, have found it impossible to deal with human society on an honest footing; Celimene's solution is to forswear honesty and Alceste's is to forswear human society.
Since these are choices most of us make, or are tempted to make, about once every quarter of an hour, "The Misanthrope" has something very close to universal appeal.
It is hard for a non-French-speaker to fully appreciate a performance so over-whelmingly composed of dialogue, and rhyming-verse dialogue at that. But these actors have certain skills that shine right through the language barrier - their rich voices, their sharply disciplined expressive movements and, above all, their concern for each other.
Beaulieu, who had the title role in "Ruy Blas" too, appears to specialize in playing the aggressive innocent, and it is easy to see why. He has a remarkable facility for looking put-upon and for delivering angry declamations with a convincing passion.
Agenin has a lovely voice, and a manner as light as Beaulieu's is heavy. And she has admirably resisted all temptations to make Celimene more sympathetic. Even at the end, when a tear would be halfway reasonable, she apologizes for her falsehoods with a coldness that is true to her shallow character.
The supporting performances in "Misanthrope" are uniformly strong and well defined - a trademark of the Comedie in all three of its productions here. Again, Michel Duchaussoy (the cleft-palated secretary in "A Flea in Her Ear") is a standout, and Berengere Dautun makes the jealous provocatress Arsinoe a surprisingly full-dimensional accessory to the plot.
As directed by Pierre Dux, this is a distincty modern "Misanthrope," light on the rhyme and meter - except now and again for effect - and played with considerable physical naturalism. This may be a bit of a shock to those who want to see vivid evidence of the company's ancient origins, but it was an appropriate choice for what was almost an avant-garde work in its day.