"THE MISER" at the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger boasts several strong virtues, chief among them a striking central performance by John Wylie as the miser Harpagon, the visual delights of William Schroder's whimsically detailed costumes and haunted-house setting -- and, of course, Molie re's eternally funny script.
But for every giggle at the Folger, there's also a grimace and a groan. Director John Going doesn't trust the text to make us laugh, and the French farce is overburdened with contrivances that succeed only in strangling the witty words.
In "The Miser," Molie re constructs a tangle of romantic and financial intrigues. Foolish, greedy Harpagon is preparing to marry the young beauty Mariane, unaware that his foppish son Cle'ante is his rival for her affections. Meanwhile, Harpagon's obsequious steward Vale re, who knows the power of flattery, is carrying on with the miser's daughter E'lise, even though she is promised to wealthy Seigneur Anselm, who has agreed to take her without a dowry. And so on.
Wylie, made up to look like a wizened gargoyle, is an unfailingly funny Harpagon, and even wrings a drop of sympathy for the old skinflint. In a soliloquy in which the miser mourns the theft of his money, Wylie ventures out into the audience -- a risky gimmick for any actor -- but he makes it work.
Sybil Lines has some priceless takes as the exasperated E'lise, and the dependable Floyd King does an ingenuous Red Skelton turn as Jacques, the household's cook and coachman. In the brief role of Simon the usurer, Jim Beard again shows that no indignity is too great in his quest for a laugh. Several other players similarly overplay their minor parts.
Director Going's "Miser" drifts back and forth between commedia dell'arte and vaudeville, a conceit that comes uncomfortably close to the Folger's disastrous circus-style "Merry Wives of Windsor."
Among other offenses, Going sets his characters in constant, pointless motion, goes overboard on crude boobs 'n' bums bits and underlines delicate exchanges with annoying slide whistles and rattles.
Going has also taken it upon himself to embellish Moliere's play with three new "characters": L'Avarice, the spirit of greed, and her two acolytes, called Tapestrites, who supply the sound effects. Masked and costumed by Schroder, they are fantastic grown-up gremlins, but their lurking presence goes unexplained and they remain a superfluous and time-consuming distraction.
Granted, some of Going's gags work, and well. But the most successful scenes are those precious moments when Going stops trying so hard and leaves his actors alone with Moliere. That simple combination is really all it takes to make us laugh.
THE MISER -- At the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger through May 18.