The story of how the family de-programmed papa, after he had fallen into the hands of a religious charlatan, is playing at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

Moliere's "Tartuffe" has always seemed fresh sometimes a little too fresh, as the Kennedy Center points out with its proud claim, "banned five years in Paris!" (referring to 1664-1669) and an excerpt from Napoleon's memoirs noting that he would have banned it had it only been written under his regime. We should therefore be grateful to live in a society that not only permits "Tartuffe" but actually sponsors its production, as the Kennedy Center and CBS have done as the fourth play in their "Eisenhower Theater Season."

This is a generous production, too, in which the 17th century trappings look as good as the actors' credentials. But the Comedie-Francaise, ce n'est pas.

One might have expected difficulties in the performance of Brian Bedford, who stepped into the title role days before the opening, after a public spat with George Grizzard, who was to have played Tartuffe under Bedford's direction.

But Bedford's Tartuffe, featuring a basic butter-wouldn't-melt-in-his-mouth expression over which a slimy smile keeps sliding, is one of the pleasures of the show. Barnard Hughes, as the deceived disciple, and Barbara Bryne, as the big-mouthed, big-hearted maid, have also produced irrepressible characters within the effervescent Moliere spirit.

The other characterizations are flat, especially that of Fritz Weaver as Cleante, who is supposed, after all, to be the spokesman of the good life. It is hard to see what liveliness ever existed in that mopy, humorless household that Tartuffe could have spoiled with his hypocritically pious injunctions.

It is true that this English vesion by Simon Gray is burdened with the clunky belief that papa's folly can be explained by the male menopause. How anyone endorsing this concept would have the strength to put on his wig in the morning, let alone make merry, is hard to understand. But there are enough airy lines ("Still waters run rancid in your case, my dear") and delicious opportunities (picking himself off his benefactor's wife's body, Tartuffe protests his innocence with "That lady here? Bleagh!") to make fun with. While pulling off his feat as an actor, Bedford as director has neglected to maintain the tone of the production.

TARTUFFE -- At the Eisenhower Theater through May 29.