Attitude is everything in Avant Bard’s bright, brisk premiere of Minnicino’s 100-minute script, now parading its insults in the intimate Theater II at Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center. But the high shine on the superficial characters’ veneer — driven by flamboyant rhyming language that generates laughs, groans and occasionally insight — makes the play more brittle than “Misanthrope”s need to be.
The plot is fueled by arch archetypes that infuriate the main character, Alceste, who prides himself on telling these poseurs the truth, no matter the cost. (Naturally, he’s the one who’s getting sued.) As Alceste, Elliott Kashner fumes and stammers with disgust, often while dangling a couplet’s final word for comic effect. The character’s smug wrath blazes through. What’s not as visible are the superior but soulful Alceste’s bruised feelings.
Molière’s mischievous twist is that Alceste is smitten with the sparkly Celimene, queen of the takedown. “The best at throwing shade,” an admirer says in Minnicino’s version, and Thais Menendez glides confidently through the role, axing reputations with a quip and a smile. The actors who relax into their characters generally come off best in Megan Behm’s well-articulated, high-energy production; Jenna Berk fits that description with her sensible, grounded performance as Philinte, Alceste’s friend. So does Chloe Mikala, who supplies a light and witty turn as the amused, syntax-fixated Eliante.
The comedy is less sure when it’s hard-working — that goes for some of Minnicino’s grosser puns and imagery — and when the staging becomes physical, though Sara Barker takes an aggressive chance that pays off as the repressed divorcée Arsinoe. (The voice of Beelzebub is involved.) As the characters get wound up and the performance gets noisy, the pushy anxiety sometimes cries for relief. Vanities are veneers covering vulnerabilities, and there are layers this show doesn’t plumb.
Alison Samantha Johnson’s costumes are elegant for Celimene, drab for Alceste and ridiculous for satellite characters Oronte (Matthew Sparacino, at one point in a teal blazer and shorts decorated with sharks) and Clitandre (Patrick Joy, who gets to wear an inflatable pink flamingo flotation device around his waist). But it’s an element of Megan Holden’s chic set that particularly captures the flavor of the show. It’s the artificial-turf lawn, vivid green and as plastic as the production’s gallery of fakes.
A Misanthrope, adapted from Molière’s play by Matt Minnicino. Directed by Megan Behm. Lights, Elizabeth Ross; sound design, Kevin Alexander. With Hannah Sweet and Tendo Nsubuga. Through June 20 at Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. $40. 703-418-4808. wscavantbard.org.