Lives in Play

Old Script or New, the Character's Motive Is Always the Mystery

Needless to say, Dowling's production offers his actors no such chance. Brian Bedford's Orgon, firm and respectable, seems hardly interested enough in the goings-on to be at their center. His interest in Henry Goodman, whose mild manner and shopkeeper face make him the least intriguing Tartuffe in decades, seems largely based on having at last found a kindred spirit with a mid-Atlantic accent. Kathryn Meisle, whom I don't recall ever disliking except in a previous Dowling/Roundabout venture, makes an earnest and rather vague Elmire; John Bedford Lloyd makes heavy going of Cleante's ratiocinations; and T.R. Knight's Damis, which suggests a rather skittish otter being trained as a bullfighter, can hardly be called a performance at all.

Jeffrey Carlson, as Valere, speaks his lines very clearly. It would be unfair to judge his acting, since he has to do it while wearing an outfit roughly as large as the rest of the show's wardrobe stitched together; his hat alone is larger than J. Smith-Cameron. Like most of the show's other gestures in some interpretative direction or other, this one is obfuscatory and aimless: Even if Valere's outlook differs from Orgon's, and the latter has enforced a puritanical mode of dress on his household, Valere hopes to marry Orgon's daughter; he would hardly pay a call dressed in a way guaranteed to infuriate the man. I don't blame Jane Greenwood, who has at least made his getup look like a textbook-worthy costume plate. What directorial instructions Dowling gave her to provoke such a result, I can't imagine; I find his other choices equally puzzling, though less extravagant. My least favorite Tartuffe used to be the film version with Gerard Depardieu, based on one of those lethal "postmodern" productions that have destroyed theater in Europe and its teaching in American universities. The filmed performance is stark, shrieky, and unrelentingly grim; what scares me is that, compared to Dowling's dressy, polite, pointless version, it is also a model of artistic integrity and commitment. If I waste one more sentence on the Roundabout version, I may start thinking of that wretched film with nostalgia.

Kathryn Meisle and Henry Goodman in Tartuffe: morals claws
photo: Joan Marcus
Kathryn Meisle and Henry Goodman in Tartuffe: morals claws


By MoliŤre
Translated by Richard Wilbur
American Airlines Theatre
Broadway and 42nd Street

Art, Life & Show-Biz
By Ain Gordon
150 First Avenue

Nostalgia, mingled with a healthier disquiet, is the basic element at the molten core of Ain Gordon's Art, Life & Show-Biz, a play that isn't a play and has the honor to tell you so virtually from the beginning. In a talk-show setting, with illustrative slides, reading his own stage directions and intervening comments from a script, Gordon presents three mature women from disparate modes of theatrical adventure: Helen Gallagher, Lola Pashalinski, and his mother, Valda Setterfield. Though occasionally talking among themselves, or taking roles in each other's narrations, what they mainly do is tell, at Gordon's prompting, key parts of their own stories. But in art, to steal a phrase of Franca Rame's about feminism, "we all have the same story": the crisis points; the leaps forward in success and back in failure; the struggle between personal and artistic lives; the unexpected trauma or triumph; the distressing and gratifying ways in which age sneaks up on you. But as still another feminist said, Steinishly, "everything being the same everything is always different," and Gordon's trio of divas has plenty of induplicable anecdotes, joyous or traumatic, to offer.

My only regret, in fact, is that the evening actually is a play, and that under the seeming casualness Gordon has in fact organized and shaped it to build very carefully to summarize his point about artistic experience. This game is too much fun, and these lives too fascinating, to be confined to a work of art. But, of course, that is Gordon's point as well; his tactics are as sneaky, and as lucid, as Molière's.

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