Sean McNall and Janie Brookshire
in The Misanthrope
(© Jacob J Goldberg)
Sean McNall and Janie Brookshire
in The Misanthrope
(© Jacob J Goldberg)
Throughout the introductory scene to Moliere's caustic comedy The Misanthrope, now being presented by the Pearl Theatre Company at New York City Center-Stage II, misanthropic Alceste (Sean McNall) is outraged at his fellow Parisians' hyper-excessive use of the f-word: flattery. Well, director Joseph Hanreddy shouldn't be concerned about receiving too much flattery for this problematic production.

True, the play -- which is written in rhymed couplets -- is eventually spoken lucidly by the handsome cast after a sing-song quality which affects the opening segments subsides as the players increasingly relax into the jaunty iambic pentameter.

Admittedly, as well, the cast looks more than presentable in Sam Fleming's costumes and disport themselves ably on Harry Feiner's spare set. Yet, those costumes and the set are part of the restraints Hanreddy puts on the play and his players that keep it from lifting from a relatively mundane plane into a rarer theatrical sphere.

Moliere was writing in the 17th Century about the gossipy court presided over by Louis XIV. During that era, a panache abounded that had become more conventionally mannerly by the 18th Century, where Hanreddy has placed his version. While here's no rule dictating that classics must be done in period, more thought needs to be given to shifting a play into a different era than Hanreddy appears to realize.

For example, what about the playing area representing a room in the residence run by the coquette Celimene (Janie Brookshire), whom Alceste adores in contradiction to everything he stands for? Entered through a series of glass double-doors placed upstage, the unadorned space is little more than a triangular patio. The only piece of furniture on it is an upholstered four-legged stool, which means society hostess Celimene's guests have virtually no place to sit, occasionally requiring them to squat on the floor in their finery.

A bigger problem is the characterization of Alceste. Although in his program note he mentions Alceste has become "apoplectic" about the world around him, Hanreddy has McNall -- who is usually outstanding in any Pearl role he takes on -- amble about as someone just a notch or two above perfectly equable. Given that this Alceste behaves rather reasonably, the tension between him and Celimene is lessened. Still Brookshire glides through the proceedings with cunning aplomb and even manages to look incredulous when eventually confronted with her fickle ways.

As Oronte, the would-be sonneteer whom Alceste criticizes with no kindness whatsoever, Kern McFadden is wonderfully lubricious. Matthew Amendt, under a mask of white make-up, gives haughty Acaste a commendable reading, and both Joey Parson as the scheming Arsinoe and Robin LeMon as sweet and patient Eliante deserve special notice.