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Tartuffe is a very simple playso simple that it couldn't be the masterpiece it is without some deep mystery inside it. As with Hamlet, the mystery is in the characters' hearts, buried so tantalizingly deep that three centuries' worth of scholars and stage artists have been unable to pluck it out. There it stays, keeping Tartuffe fresh and fascinating and relevant in every era. In the '90s, its analysis of the gigantic frauds carried on in the name of Christianity matched exactly what we were living through in the era of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Nowadays it sounds more like the Republican Party mouthing off in the Senate: To marvel at Molière's prescience, check out the similarity between the apologias of Trent Lott and Tartuffe's "confession" after the climactic confrontation with Damis.
In order to marvel, however, you first have to see Tartuffe performed, and in this regard the Roundabout is offering an enormous obstacle in lieu of a production. I thought I had seen, in 40 years of theatergoing, about everything you could do to the play, but Joe Dowling's rendition offers an approach that is quite new to me, and a real head-scratcher. There is no mystery at all about the characters' motives in this Tartuffe, or, rather, there aren't any motives, beyond a faint glimmer here and there that sounds more like an effort to break up the rhymed couplets. The result is that the play's surface, which used to seem as lucid as a clear-water lake, now appears almost totally opaque. People come in and out of rooms for no particular reason, raise their voices or stay calm for no particular reason; even the scenery changes twice for no particular reason, the second time in the middle of a formerly coherent speech.
It is all very theatrical and self-conscious, yet Dowling takes great pains to hide its theatricality, as if declaring the play to be a play would be a gesture too coarse for a genteel poet like Molière. When the cynical servant Dorine makes her asides to the audience, and her employer Orgon asks her sharply who she is talking to, she replies, "Myself," and Dowling must think she means it, since he carefully puts her as far as possible from the audience, though Dorine is played by J. Smith-Cameron, virtually a specialist in audience rapport, whose beaconlike eyes manage to register a few signals despite all the distancing.
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Not that Dowling meant, I assume, to pull the play as far from the audience as possible; he seems simply not to have thought about what sense he wanted it to make in New York in 2003. Orgon is a middle-aged widower with two nearly grown children, who has lately become rich in a time of crisis (by supplying the king's armies during an attempted civil war) and taken a much younger second wife. Feeling an inexplicable guilt over his good fortune, he has brought into his house a con man, Tartuffe, who poses as a pious ascetic. Tartuffe is a transparent fraud, loathed by everyone except Orgon and his cranky, devout mother; nevertheless he manages, in the course of the play, to wheedle himself into becoming Orgon's heir, his daughter's designated husband, and his wife's declared lover. For a topper, when his attempt to seduce Orgon's wife is revealed, he betrays his benefactor's most dangerous secret to the king's justice: Though supporting the state, Orgon has been friends with a rebel supporter now in exile, and is keeping the man's papers for hima capital crime if discovered. Orgon and his family are about to lose everythingfortune, home, and lifewhen a royal deus ex machina intervenes.
Summarized this way, as I said, it's a simple story. What complicates it are the characters' feelings, as they challenge each other, retreat, plot, plead, bicker, have hysterics, or let impulses carry them away. Reason, embodied in Orgon's maddeningly fair-minded brother-in-law Cleante, is no help at all. The play's subtitle, omitted as usual at the Roundabout, is The Impostor, which refers specifically to Tartuffe, but could at various times apply to any number of other characters, given the enormous amount of deceit and self-deceit practiced during the play. Bringing religious fanaticism into one's house, Molière seems to say, is like opening Pandora's box; all the fraudulences in the world fly in with it, so that getting rid of it becomes an enormously tangled ethical problem.
Molière illuminates these snarled emotional and moral depths with the harsh glare of comedy. Though always anchored in some reality, the writing is carefully pushed to the edge of the ridiculous. Orgon's delusional admiration for Tartuffe is made so extreme that you instinctively start to look for the psychosis behind it. The beauty is that the exaggeration doesn't keep the play from being sharply observed: Orgon's mother and his son share his obstinate, reactive taste for haughty vindictiveness; his wife Elmire, in contrast, shares her rationalist milksop brother's tendency to play down even the worst crises. The play's gift for psychological comedy is summed up in its one gem of a cameo role: a bailiff, ironically named Loyal, whose attempt to show respectful consideration toward Orgon while serving him with an eviction notice can be either horrifying or hilarious, or both at once.