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Brian Bedford and Henry Goodman in Tartuffe
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"Hang up my hair shirt," Henry Goodman demands on his long-delayed entrance as Tartuffe, Molière's impiously pious cleric. As Goodman stands with straggly hair and a mile-long beak of a nose, dressed in shiny wide-legged 17th century shorts, he's presumably addressing an unseen servant at the top of the staircase he's just descended. His intent look and the peremptory tone with which he chooses to issue his request earns a gratifying laugh from the audience.

The command, however, may also strike attentive theatergoers as an expression of Goodman's personal posture -- an acknowledgment that, after having been notoriously dismissed from The Producers last spring and then having experienced something of a depression (as he has admitted in interviews), he's determined to forget the past and demonstrate his skills with renewed vigor for New York audiences.

He's got those skills in abundance. Aside from the few weeks that he played Max Bialystock before critics were able to assess his performance, he's ventured onto a Manhattan stage only one other time -- in the slick second Broadway cast of Yasmina Reza's Art. In England, where he recently performed a concert version of Follies, he's revered for, among other achievements, submitting the best Shylock of his generation in Trevor Nunn's misguided 1999 treatment of The Merchant of Venice and following it up in 2001 as the Max Bialystock-like political spinmeister of Alistair Beaton's thigh-slapper, Feelgood.

A lithe and wiry man with the face of a goal-oriented ferret, Goodman is an actor who doesn't so much disappear into a role as dominate it. Typically, he seems to take over a part by sheer will, making everything he does seem absolutely right. He's got the knack of suggesting that his is the only way a character can be interpreted, that no other actor could plumb the part more deeply or intelligently or imbue it with more complex life.

For a while, it looks as if the persevering Goodman will be his recognizable acting self in the Roundabout's production of Tartuffe. As he goes about Tartuffe's hypocritical chicanery, he's certainly the most intriguing character on stage -- which is, of course, what Molière intended. He speaks the iambic pentameter of Richard Wilbur's translation (Molière wrote in 12-syllable alexandrines) with a kind of throwaway ease. In accordance with the text, he shifts on a dime into whatever obsequious or importuning or repentant or censorious mood Tartuffe thinks will best suit the situation at hand as he goes about taking over the rich but silly Orgon's household.

But Goodman's return isn't the unmitigated triumph he might have wished or that advocates might have wished for him. The problem seems to be partially his. Tartuffe is a man much talked about before he finally shows up to prove or disprove what's been said about him. He's described with great admiration by the obtuse Orgon (Brian Bedford) and Orgon's termagant mother, Madame Pernelle (Rosaleen Linehan). He's mocked ceaselessly by Dorine (J. Smith-Cameron), the caustic maid to Mariane (Bryce Dallas Howard), who loves Valère (Jeffrey Carlson) but has been affianced to Tartuffe. Orgon's level-headed brother, Cléante (John Bedford Lloyd), also orates wisely against the man of cloth.

What's at issue during all the rhymed-couplet bickering is Tartuffe's sincerity as a man of God. But when Goodman has finally ventured down set designer John Lee Beatty's heavy wood stairs and delivered his droll opening line, he goes about underplaying Tartuffe's unctuous qualities. Perhaps he thinks so much has been uttered in regard to Tartuffe's indulgences that there's no need to play them up. Whatever the reason, the upshot is that the black, bleak comedy Molière has written into his speeches often goes unrealized.

Jeffrey Carlson, J. Smith-Cameron,
and Bryce Dallas Howard in Tartuffe
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Cramping Goodman's style more than his own playing is Joe Dowling's direction. Furthermore, Dowling's dictates seem to have afflicted the entire cast and keep the production from rising becoming more than passably amusing. Contemporary audiences have no reliable way of knowing how Tartuffe was played when introduced at Versailles for Louis XIV in 1664 or when, after being banned, it was re-introduced in 1669 at the Comedie Francaise with a last act that included a rex-ex-machina ending meant to flatter the king. But it's not likely that Moliere as actor and his fellow thespians would have blasted the alexandrines as if working a 17th-century burlesque house -- i. e., declaiming every line and just about every rhyme as if it were a punchline.

Because of Dowling's overall barrel-through-it approach, even the usually appealing J. Smith-Cameron -- whom designer Greenwood trusses up in a cleavage-accenting bodice -- wears out the figurative welcome mat before the first-act curtain falls. (This production is played in two acts, like just about every current revival of a three-act-or-more play.) Also stamping all over their dialogue as if trouncing grapes in a vat are Rosaleen Linehan, using the cane she carries as a lethal weapon; T. R. Knight as Damis, Orgon's son, who is in the throes of being disinherited; and Jeffrey Carlson as the impassioned, thwarted Valère.

Kathryn Meisle as Orgon's less-blinkered wife, Elmire, does manage to be gracefully amusing during Dowling's best piece of work: the scene where Elmire hides Orgon under a table while she lets Tartuffe pursue his proposed seduction of her. For a healthy length of time, Meisle and Goodman make something of their grappling, with Goodman using the large cross he wears around his neck for a hilarious bit of stage business. Eventually, though, as Elmire becomes increasingly disturbed at Orgon's failure to make himself known, even this episode begins to feel labored.

Bryce Dallas Howard speaks well and despairs touchingly as Mariane, thereby managing to convey something besides overly-wound mechanical frenzy. The same may be said of John Bedford Lloyd, who deploys his rich baritone voice with appropriate suppleness whenever called upon to represent the voice of reason. Which leaves Brian Bedford, whose interest in portraying Tartuffe was evidently the impetus for this version. The roundish actor, routinely nimble and suave, seems to have forgotten the routine; he doesn't seem inspired to be humorous about Orgon's lack of humor. As declamatory as anyone surrounding him, he's surprisingly flat.

The most consistent contribution to this Tartuffe is sound designer Mark Bennett's original music, which hints at the work of Molière collaborator Jean-Baptiste Lully while containing its own modern sense of mockery. Bennett's work, heard even before the curtain lifts, gets the production off on the right foot. (Too bad that Dowling then stumbles.) John Lee Beatty's great hall is another of his assured interiors, but later, he places an anteroom awkwardly downstage so that Tartuffe may have the necessary secluded area in which to hike Elmire's many skirts. Call this a rare Beatty lapse. Jane Greenwood's costumes are sumptuous without seeming her best output; Paul Huntley's wigs are properly bouncy or stringy; and Brian MacDevitt's lighting is serviceable. Elizabeth Smith is credited as dialect coach, and a gold star goes to anyone who can figure out what dialect(s) she was coaching.

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