Heir Transplant

"Sir," Dr. Johnson said to Boswell, "there is no trusting to that crazy piety." And Johnson, bear in mind, was a devout man and a staunchly conservative one himself. What, one wonders, would he have made of 1999 America, where groups of demented souls use "Christianity" to justify everything from slaughtering Jews and nonwhites at random to boycotting amusement parks that give their employees' same-sex lovers health insurance? The many madnesses that call themselves Christian in our country, all strangely eager to repudiate Christian teaching in favor of violence, materialism, and vindictiveness, are enough to drive the most temperate rationalist to fury. I, for instance, began my adult life respectful of Christians and seriously impressed by the wisdom of Jesus. After the last decade's worth of gooney-bird behavior draped in crucifictive excuses, I now think that believing Christians should not be allowed to vote, hold public office, own guns, speak on the air, or teach. I realize this is undemocratic of me, but I can't help it; it's only an inevitable reaction to endless news stories about some moronic white male who has committed some atrocity or made some particularly idiotic statement that he insists on calling Christian, though it has no more relation to Jesus's doctrines than a Giuliani fundraiser has to the homeless.

Naturally, I think all Christian churches should be seized by the state, to be converted into secular-humanist theaters; the inaugural production in each should of course be Molière's Tartuffe, the definitive play about the damage "that crazy piety" can inflict. Simple and even crude in its devices, Tartuffe is nonetheless full of mysteries. Some of them come from its having begun as a quite different play, which was banned under pressure from the religious right. In that version, which scholars have lately been trying to reconstruct, the title character seems to have been an ordained priest rather than a con man­poseur; the subtitle The Impostor was added in the rewrite.

And, indeed, the subtitle is relative: We never really know how calculating an impostor Tartuffe is; like a great actor, he uses the truth to put his deceits across, and the creepiest part may be that he thinks he's doing right. Similarly, we never fully know what drives Orgon to make so much of Tartuffe at his family's expense, or to what extent Elmire actually enjoys Tartuffe's attempts to seduce her behind her elderly husband's back. The mock-innocent crudity of the writing looks transparent: Orgon, returned home, hears that his wife has been seriously ill and that Tartuffe ate a hearty meal; he exclaims, "Poor fellow!" Orgon is a wealthy, prominent, articulate man, so his response must mean something: that he hates his wife and regrets having remarried; that he feels guilty about his newly acquired wealth (he's profited by choosing the winning side in a recent civil war); that Tartuffe's pose of poverty has struck him so acutely, he thinks no amount of gorging now can make up for the man's earlier deprivation. Under the crass, brightly laminated surface joke, thickly piled motives jostle and bleed into one another, giving the play an eerie sense of being built on quicksand. No production of Tartuffe, however dark or light, can dodge its pervasive disquietude.

Charles Kimbrough (Top) and Dylan Baker In Tartuffe: Piety in the Sky
photo: Michal Daniel
Charles Kimbrough (Top) and Dylan Baker In Tartuffe: Piety in the Sky

Details

'Tartuffe'
By Molière, translated by Richard Wilbur
Delacorte Theatre,
Central Park 539-8750

'Kat and the Kings'
By David Kramer and Taliep Petersen
Cort Theatre,
48th Street and Seventh Avenue 239-6200

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Mark Brokaw's Central Park staging certainly tries. This is Molière for the groundlings— louder, brasher, and shriller, if not always faster and funnier. No question here about Tartuffe's possible self-delusion: During the scene with Cleante, he and his servant filch the rational man's watch and money bag. The lack of subtlety isn't fatal— the comic parable on the surface makes the basic point effectively enough— and it isn't universal: Wendell Pierce nearly make the pompous Cleante a lively, personable fellow; J. Smith-Cameron's Elmire and Dylan Baker's Tartuffe have enough variety in their playing to at least hint at the hidden depths; and Charles Kimbrough's pixilated, jerky Orgon is like a carefully phrased question, veiling any possible hint of the right answer.

In the long run, though, the production's noise and push are detrimental; they subtract from the play's substance without adding to its fun, and they imply, condescendingly, that a Park audience can't be expected to get jokes that are both simple and true without heavy underlining. What ought to have been the two best performances are the two most weakened by Brokaw's approach: Dana Ivey's Madame Pernelle and Mary Testa's Dorine. Ivey rants, which is thoroughly unlike her; the astringent precision of her usual style was never more missed, or more appropriate. Testa garners any number of big laughs when she plays quietly, or just rolls her golf ball-sized eyes in frustration, but she yells most of her part as if addressing people on the other side of a canyon rather than two feet away. Jess Goldstein, most of whose costumes are both apt and colorful, has compounded the bedlam by dressing Testa as fancily as if she were one of the family rather than the maid. Of the younger generation, Christopher Duva is a decent Valere; Curtis McClarin, inevitably in this context, makes a shouty and obvious Damis; and Danielle Ferland's Marianne is plagued with periodic seizures of Kristin Chenoweth, a nasty condition, said to come from inhaling New York Times printer's ink, that gives young actresses a painful dumblonditis of the vocal cords.

Oddest of all, the effort and strain in Brokaw's production end by pushing the play back in time, distancing it further from the audience, to whom a more direct and naturalistic reading would look like a slightly stylized version of events that are going on around us every day. There was no gap that needed bridging between Molière's substance and our time; the anxiety behind the Park's loud, bright style effectively creates one. Skittering around under Mark McCullough's harsh lights, to John Gromada's speeded-up harpsichord score (it sounds like isolation-booth music for 17th- century TV quiz shows), the cast seem to be figures from a very distant world, battling the rhymed couplets for the sake of an elaborate stage intrigue that has only vague points of contact with the here and now. Europeans, used to somber Tartuffes filled with everyday behavior (like the Strasbourg version filmed with Gerard Depardieu), must marvel at our taking such trouble to make the most immediate work in the classical canon so remote.

ââ Kat and the Kings rarely screeches or rants, but the degree of effort is just as perceptible. It hardly seems fair to review a work in which the performers are so anxious to please, and put out so much effort and energy: The slightest reservation you offer makes you feel like an ingrate, while the best you can say in their praise would seem a puny reward for such hard labor. if everyone involved would just lay back for a minute and let us discover its minor pleasures for ourselves, we would probably overrate it as Cape Town and London seem to have. Certainly the performers are gifted: When Jody J. Abrahams, as the young hero, cartwheels across the stage, or when Alistair Izobell sends his lush countertenor out into the house, showbiz seems like a lovely and magical place. That it isn't becomes clear as the show's virtues, overused and unvaried, quickly wear thin.

Set among the mixed-race people South Africa's apartheid government called "coloreds" or "Cape coloreds," the story deals with a '50s close-harmony group that tries to doo-wop its way across racial barriers. Neither dramatized nor turned into a constant background presence, the racial tension drifts lazily across the evening, like secondhand smoke. The characterizations are as desultory, and the resolution as arbitrary, as the sequence of numbers. The evening never decides whether it's a concert or a book show; caught in the middle, the performers seem increasingly manic; author-director David Kramer doesn't help by piling on gadgets till the finale suggests song-and-dance night in the MGM prop shop. And all through, the synthetic nostalgia songs keep evoking the real ones they can't quite replace. (Avenue X, an Off-Broadway show that also viewed '50s racial barriers through the prism of doo-wop, had the same problem.) Unlike most musical imports from London, Kat and the Kings isn't torture; the pity is that its genuine pleasantness fades, all too quickly, before it can become something else.

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