A Million Tartuffes Later, Is Molière Still Breathing?

The best moment at the theater is always just before the curtain rises. After that, it’s every man for himself. There needn’t even be a curtain. Light will do it. But in those moments when the house lights go down and the curtain is about to rise, every possibility hangs tantalizingly in the balance, all worlds are to be discovered. What’s behind the curtain?

The most thrilling illustration of this sense of anticipation I’ve ever experienced was at the start of Stephen Daldry’s new interpretation of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls . As I remember it, before the show starts, a little boy appears onstage and peeks under the plush curtain of a fading Edwardian façade. It’s a deliberately dated, gold and red velvet curtain. The boy is curious to see what on earth goes on behind it. So he bends down and starts to lift the heavy fabric. And the music starts -very dramatic Hitchcockian music-and the child lifts the curtain a bit higher, and higher. And by now, we’re surely on the edge of our seats. The curtain rises !

The child is us, of course. We’re the child. Now, what that magician (or beguiling charlatan) Stephen Daldry revealed behind the curtain of the revival of the 1947 An Inspector Calls was a toy house marooned like a crater on a cobbled wasteland-the house on the hill. Nothing could have been more staggering! He was going after a bold neo-Expressionist view of Priestley’s beloved old potboiler, and whether he truly succeeded is another question. He was compelling us to experience the well-known, mummified play anew.

Not by sets alone. Audiences like to applaud sets, particularly when they feel at home. Whenever the curtain rises on a nice, tastefully decorated drawing room with a few books, people applaud. If it’s a splendid Art Deco home like the one on display in the current production of Dinner at Eight , the applause can be thunderous, as if the audience has been offered a privileged view of someone else’s enviable home. The sets for Dinner at Eight are designed by John Lee Beatty, as are the sets for Tartuffe , which has just opened at the Roundabout. But I must say I’ve never applauded a set, even a memorable one. One of the best I’ve seen wasn’t there: The lights went up on A Chorus Line to reveal an empty stage-or so it seemed.

So the life and vitality within the set-the world re-created onstage-is the name of the beautiful game. Put bluntly, either the production lives or it doesn’t. Does it come to the boil? Is it alive ? You might sense the outcome as soon as the curtain rises. It hangs in the balance! There! From the first sight of the world within and the first lines of the brave actor:

Ah no, Grandmother, I could never take

To such a rascal, even for my father’s sake.

But I’m afraid the moment the curtain rose on Joe Dowling’s traditional production of Tartuffe , I-or it-was sunk. My rush to judgment wasn’t reversed as the evening wore on by the excellence of Henry Goodman’s oily religious hypocrite, Tartuffe, or trusty Brian Bedford’s duped Orgon. These two fine actors in partnership are mostly delightful. (Mr. Bedford, puffed with his own foolish pleasure in newfound sanctimony as Orgon, is a shade too prissily pursed for his downfall.) It is Mr. Dowling’s lack of any point of view about the great farce-or tragicomedy-that’s decisive.

If the Comédie Française itself is nowadays locked half-alive in its own museum past, Mr. Dowling’s take on Tartuffe is dead on arrival. His conventional reading might have been produced by a 19th-century American touring company (with guest British star). It’s a mannered, literal, “high-style” notion of period Frenchness. The revival crucially offers no sense of seeing things anew or of making the familiar fresh.

There’s a fustiness about Mr. Beatty’s uncharacteristically lackluster stage set, which he locates sort of in the 17th century. Then again, it might be the 18th or 19th-or for that matter, 21st-century fustian.Theusually meticulousdesigner has created a badly painted, pseudo-wood-paneled Paris townhouse interior with drapes, murky portraits and the wrong doorknobs. The conventional stage picture is meant to be affluent 17th-centurybourgeois. Yet it conveys no history, no past or present. It could be anywhere in unreal, musty time.

Thefirstactis trapped, for some peculiar reason, in the entrance hall. Characters come and go, true. But that clumsy staircase makes only decorative sense at best (and is scarcely used). The set appears to be deliberately gloomy-perhaps to suggest the gulled Orgon’s zealous Puritanism and Molière’s implied seriousness. But a comedy is a comedy is a tragicomedy, and Orgon’s conversion to religious fanaticism has come belatedly. His grand home ought to be the luxurious symbol of his former un-Christian indulgence. Here, it might pass for an all-purpose church hall or double for a touring production of an Agatha Christie.

Mr. Beatty’s exterior of the house for Act II is much better and lighter. Light, as it were, has come to the chastened, enlightened Orgon. But the anteroom for the famous seduction scene on the table between ravenous Tartuffe and pretty, prone Elmire, wife of Orgon, is altogether too cramped for good sex and broad comedy. Molière intends a farcical romp within the riotous scene. Tartuffe’s groveling fall from feigned grace is then the more pathetic. But the table itself is too small to become a sweaty bed or sacrificial altar of Elmire’s virtue, too ungenerous for knockabout farce. In any case, Mr. Bedford-not a big fellow-can scarcely fit under it to hide beneath the action, as he must, on all fours, like a dim dog.

The table, in other words, must be more than a table, just as a Molière revival must be more than a bad reproduction of what the original might have been like a million Tartuffes ago. Jane Greenwood’s detailed 17th-century costumes look authentic, if new, adding an earnest period flavor. But some in the cast do not wear their costumes well. They pose and strut in period, clomping on the verse as if delivering doggerel from greeting cards in a school production:

Your love of duty is most meritori- ous ,

And what you’ve done is little short of glori- ous .

They murder the Molière rhyme, while Messieurs Bedford and Goodman turn on a dime. It’s Mr. Dowling’s defensively traditional approach to Tartuffe that marks his uninspiring production and begs the central question: How to make Molière a contemporary playwright?

Topicality isn’t the issue. A few seasons ago, I saw a promising Tartuffe who’d been turned into a seductive, hirsute TV evangelist. But, alas, the “relevant” production ran out of steam. The real question is how to make Molière fully alive. He needn’t be modernized. According to legend, Roger Planchon’s stunning production of Tartuffe for the Theatre National Populaire in the 70′s was a mad revelation hovering between domestic comedy and cosmic significance. According to Michael Billington, the leading drama critic in England, it began outside Orgon’s spectacular house with a sword-brandishing angel poised over the actors and Christ seated alongside them. It was, to say the least, an eye-opener.

But when Mr. Dowling’s notion of providing new meaning to a familiar text amounts to the tired idea of Orgon being sexually attracted to Tartuffe, it’s time to wearily fold up the tent. Why trouble to rationalize their relationship? It isn’t at all difficult to accept the religious conversion of Orgon by the unctuous, blatantly hypocritical Tartuffe. Look at the world! Besides, Orgon’s a dope.

How I wish Henry Goodman had returned to New York in a better production. It’s a pleasure to see this wonderful British character actor confidently seize the territory as Molière’s caricatured parasite after his insulting experience with the charming producers of The Producers . His pasty mask of religious zealotry conveys lovely, effortless lust for the usual things: sex, money, power. But is Molière’s Tartuffe a genuine hypocrite? He’s not a clever one. Tartuffe yearns transparently for the world, and it’s good to have Mr. Goodman with us showing the world’s gullible way.