A funny thing happened on the way (home) from the theater… Actually lots of funny things happened in the theater too but it wasn’t until a short while later did I get the incredible coincidence that serendipitously befell us in our theatrical double header yesterday. Since our schlep into the city is significant we have taken to doubling up lately (great day for a ball game, let’s play two). It helps of course if two of the tickets are generously gifted, the others are available at steep discount through the Theater Development Fund (TDF) and the two Off Broadway theaters are within a few blocks of each other.
Adding to the serendipity was the fact that the overriding themes of both were similar, i.e., man’s hypocrisy and both used the same vehicle, i.e., farce, to deliver the message. They could have been bundled together and headlined the NY Festival of Farce Through the Ages. In the first of the day-night double header (the kind where the fans pay separately for each game), Moliere’s classic Tartuffe was staged at the Pearl Theater, a cozy subterranean space on St Marks Place. The evening performance was Why Torture is Wrong and People Who Love Them (still working on the significance of that title) at The Public Theater.
Tartuffe is the tale of a vagabond (guilefully played by Bradford Cover) masquerading as a religious zealot in order to ingratiate himself with awealthy family. His hypocrisy is immediately transparent to the audience and to all of the characters except Orgon, the head of the household (played by TJ Edwards) and his equally naive and gullible mother (Carol Schultz) who feel sorry for Tartuffe and take him in. Tartuffe with a holier than thou slight of hand manages to cleverly and effortlessly twist black into white and easily gets his sponsor to transfer his fortune and pledge his daughter (Carrie McCrossen) in marriage, all the while lusting after Orgon’s wife (Ratchel Botchan). Moliere speaks through all of his characters but none as clearly and forcefully as the maid Dorine (portrayed with great gusto, emphasis on great by Robin Leslie Brown). Moliere’s sharp commentary on religious hypocrisy, written in 1664, was originally banned by the French King Louis XIV under pressure from the Archbishop of Paris who issued an edict threatening excommunication for anyone who watched, performed in, or read the play. The aforementioned actors plus Sean McNall (the son) and Dominic Cuskern (the uncle) all deserve great marks for absorbing their characters and adding depth to what could easily be played just for laughs. Pearl’s talented repertory cast are like your favorite shirt that’s been worn countless times but still has that great comforting and familiar quality that keeps you coming back to it at the top of the pile.
Why Torture is Wrong …and the People Who Love Them
In Christopher Durang’s new play Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them the parallels with Moliere are real. Durang portrays another gullible head of the household (Leonard played by Richard Poe) who is taken in not by the hypocrisy of the church but by the hypocrisy of a corrupt and unethical government. It is a modern day farce that skewers the Bush-Cheney paranoid take on the new post McCarthyism boogey-man that is terrorism. In this case, however it takes the audience and his daughter (played by Laura Benanti) much longer to see through Leonard’s over the top secret vigilante activities and Luella, his Edith Bunker of a wife (Kristine Nielson) never does catch on. Laura meets her new husband Zamir (Amir Arison) under unusual circumstances. He claims to be Irish but is clearly of middle eastern descent and (as it turns out) has a few more secrets of his own. Durang can’t resist his own jab at religion and Reverend Mike, the minister who marries them (John Pankow) ironically is also a porn movie producer. As is typical in farce, the characters are larger than life and the cast is rounded out by two of Leonard’s co-conspirators: one speaks only in Mel Blanc* cartoon dialogue and voices (David Aaron Baker) but occasionally steps out of the action á la George Burns to address the audience in a narrator voice and the other (Audrie Neenan) is a middle aged woman who has heard the vigilante calling but can’t keep her underwear on (literally, not figuratively). Staging and revolving sets by David Korins were inventive and allowed the action to flow seamlessly through multiple scene changes.
Considering the strength of the church in his day and the real consequences he suffered as a result, Moliere demonstrated considerable chutzpah for his willingness to write the play that he did… And while in modern day America we take for granted our civil liberties and don’t usually think it daring to speak our mind on controversial issues, the daily revelations of what was really going on behind the curtain of the Bush-Cheney White House should make us sit up and take notice and tip our hats to playwrights like Christopher Durang.