Bill Camp and Jeanine Serralles in The Misanthrope
(© Joan Marcus)
Bill Camp and Jeanine Serralles in The Misanthrope
(© Joan Marcus)
With the iconoclastic Flemish director Ivo van Hove at the helm, one would be an utter fool to expect New York Theatre Workshop's production of The Misanthrope to resemble one's great-great-grandfather's Moliére. And without question, van Hove has dragged this classic play kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, turning the French playwright's comic satire of the chattering classes into, among other things, a commentary on the dangers of technology. Ultimately, however, there's more to admire than enjoy in van Hove's radical reinterpretation of the work -- and a great many directorial touches that seem to defy understanding.

Unlike with his justly celebrated 2004 production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, van Hove and longtime production designer Jan Versweyveld have not reconfigured the entire NYTW space. Instead, they have constructed a transparent box on the stage as the playing field, in which an otherwise bare floor hosts an oversized coffee table and the back wall is dominated by a large three-panel video screen.

Indeed, the biggest trick van Hove pulls out of his overstuffed bag -- which also includes a rather erotic man-on-man wrestling sequence and a rather juvenile food fight -- is to use that screen constantly. (The superb video design is by Tal Yarden.) Sometimes, we merely see the action on stage, sometimes the screen is used for visual commentary, and in one memorable sequence, videographers actually follow actors Bill Camp and Jeanine Serralles -- who play battling lovers Alceste and Celimene -- out onto East 4th Street.

Throughout the course of the evening, cell phones are frequently pulled out and spoken on, while an Apple laptop is used to surf the Internet by Celemine's suitor, Acaste -- now turned into a lesbian (and very well played by the veteran actress Joan MacIntosh). Celimene's damning letter where she savages her various friends and lovers -- including the preening poet Oronte (played by the handsome Alfredo Narciso) and Clitandre (played by the striking Jason C. Brown, one of two African-Americans in the multi-culti cast) -- is transformed into a text message. This barrage of technology is intended to underline van Hove's point that we allow ourselves the illusion that we are always connected to each other in a society where we rarely make genuine connections.

Van Hove's most daring notion, however, is to strip almost all the comedy from the play (which uses Tony Harrison's translation, previously seen on Broadway in 1975), turning Alceste's almost unfathomable obsession with Celimene into the stuff of heavy drama. A man who demands honesty and purity in everyone, Alceste seesaws between a willingness to overlook his beloved's marked lack of those qualities and an unquenchable need to have her conform to his moral code -- all the while in the thrall of pure animal lust. His plight is pitiable, to be sure, but it also becomes a bit boring after 110 intermissionless and mostly laughless minutes.

It doesn't help matters that the actors -- all of whom are barefoot and have been costumed in some variation of black and white by Emilio Sosa -- have been asked to give mostly too-understated performances. That said, two of the evening's best performers -- Thomas Jay Ryan as Alceste's best friend, Philinte, and Amelia Campbell as the supposedly prudish Arsinoe -- are occasionally asked to scream at the top of their lungs for no apparent reason.

As Celimene, the essentially no-nonsense Serralles, who was positively brilliant in the NYTW's last outing, Betty Shamieh's The Black-Eyed, has some excellent dramatic moments. But on the whole, this gifted actress strikes me as a less-than-optimal choice for a character who is explicitly written as a 20-year-old seductress.

Fortunately, much as van Hove's Hedda gained much of its strength from the amazing Elizabeth Marvel in the title role, this Misanthrope benefits from the intensity of Camp, who happens to be Marvel's husband. Moreover, while Marvel allowed herself to be doused with a bottle of V-8 in that earlier production, Camp bombards himself with chocolate sauce, ketchup, and fresh watermelon, among other foodstuffs, in one strangely debasing sequence. Later, he rolls around the stage floor in a pile of honest-to-goodness garbage. Sadly, unlike Hedda, both of these actions come off more as having been created for shock-for-shock's sake instead of being intrinsic to the play's theme.

Van Hove's ending sequence is even more baffling, since its final image of Alceste and Celimene seems to actually contradict the text. But following the rules -- even his own -- has never been part of the director's playbook.