Molie re rarely gets a fair shake in this country. Either his plays are directed with rampant giddiness, suggesting that all humanity has been infected by a particularly virulent strain of St. Vitus' dance, or else -- and you only need back up six months to the Kennedy Center's "Tartuffe" -- they are treated as dark, dour expressions of the eternal perversity in human beings. Striking the right balance between gravity and merriment, consequence and levity, is not easy. But Center Stage comes close with its production of "The Miser."
The evening is indisputably lively, although by my count there are only two outright pratfalls in Stan Wojewodski's staging, both of them perfectly justified. At the same time, the characters have not been deprived of their flesh and blood. If they jump about like performing fleas on occasion, it is with due cause. Molie re's play not only shows us the lengths to which the miser Harpagon can carry his miserliness. It also chronicles Harpagon's impact on family and servants, otherwise rational creatures, forced by one man's folly to behave with folly themselves.
But at Center Stage, there's no champing at the bit to get on with the fun. No rush to comic judgment. Wojewodski wants us to believe, first of all, in the reality of the lovers and servants who orbit around Harpagon. By establishing them as robust, full-bodied creatures, acting with as much reason as circumstances permit, he is, in fact, adroitly setting up the insanity that comes later. You can't have a comic plague, after all, if the populace isn't healthy to begin with.
Harpagon is, indeed, a plague waiting to spread. He is eager to marry off his pristine daughter to a man thrice her age, simply because that graying gentleman is willing to take her "without a dowry." What money he temporarily parts with, he lends at 25 1/2 percent interest. When he learns that his son is secretly doing the borrowing, Harpagon promptly disinherits him and throws him out the door.
The horses in the stable are hoof and bones. The shelves in the pantry are half-stocked. (Ordering up a repast for 10, Harpagon advises his cook, "But have enough for eight." Then, "Just to be on the safe side, make it for seven.") To crown his cupidity, Harpagon has taken it into his lascivious head to marry the waif next door, who is also being courted by his son.
Bill McCutcheon is splendid in the title role, which is half the battle right there. With his sloping chin and his droopy eyes, the bow to his legs and the itch in his arthritic feet, he looks rather like the dwarf Disney forgot -- Niggardly. There's a bit of the vaudevillian in his delivery, which now and again echoes the inflections of a W. C. Fields. Instead of the usual autocrat, McCutcheon plays Harpagon as a stubborn child whose power derives from his willful single-mindedness. No one can talk sense to him -- only cents -- although everyone certainly tries.
In fact, if the other characters finally resort to bald scheming to restore order, it's because every other tactic has failed. Respect, frankness, flattery -- all are tried and all prove wanting. The easy way to deal with "The Miser" is to view it as the roasting of a skinflint. However, this production constantly underscores the unreasonable steps reasonable men must take to preserve their reason. That's the trickier half of the battle.
The supporting players are for the most part bright of eye and bushy of tail, and their alertness makes them very appealing. Especially Tana Hicken, a savory blend of sass and coquetry, as Frosine, the matchmaker; John Madden Towey, doing double duty as cook and coachman and demonstrating in the process how far an actor can cut back and still be funny; and Joanne Manley who, as the waif courted by both father and son, proves that Molie re's sweet young heroines needn't be vapid in the bargain.
Under Hugh Landwehr's cobwebby set, there is clearly a handsome drawing room. But it houses three stories worth of scaffolding, on which perches Harpagon's hoarded treasure -- a questionable collection of broken tables and chairs, handless clocks, overwrought sculpture, a stuffed bear and a wastebasket fashioned from an elephant's foot. The clutter is so impressive that it's a bit disappointing to see it used only as a backdrop. Surely such glorious junk could have taken a more active role in the proceedings.
I was also disappointed that Harpagon's celebrated monologue gets short shrift here. As Molie re has it, Harpagon, upon discovering that his coffer of gold has been pilfered from the garden, dashes breathlessly onstage, peers under the furniture, seizes his own hand (which in his delirium he mistakes for the hand of the culprit), accuses titterers in the audience of complicity in the crime, momentarily expires, then, revived by righteous zeal, threatens to hang everyone -- family, friends, himself if need be -- to get justice. Reducing that bravura monologue to a couple of lines, as Center Stage does, is like letting Hamlet quit after "To be or not to be."
Still, we've been offered a generous serving of Molie re's irrepressible spirit beforehand and that's more than we're accustomed to getting on our stages. Perrier notwithstanding, Molie re remains France's No. 1 tonic.
THE MISER. By Molie re. Adapted by Miles Malleson. Directed by Stan Wojewodski. Sets, Hugh Landwehr; costumes, Dona Granata; lighting, Craig Miller; with James McDonnell, Patricia Kalember, Tony Soper, Bill McCutcheon, Tana Hicken, John Madden Towey, Joanne Manley. At Center Stage through Dec. 12.