At the end of the first act of "Tartuffe," Molière's dark comedy set in 17th-century France, the title character, who is the very essence of sanctimony, has been caught trying to seduce the wife of his benefactor, Orgon, whose gullibility is monumental. Because Orgon is so smitten with Tartuffe he refuses to believe the testimony of his own son, or, for that matter, his wife. Tartuffe knows just how to play his foolish host. Orgon disinherits his son and embraces Tartuffe warmly. He even tries to kiss him, which Tartuffe, somewhat startled, resists. This piece of business is not in the text, but it does at least provide one explanation for why Orgon is so deliberately blind and stupid. It is almost the only moment in the production, directed by Joe Dowling, that goes beyond the conventional. It is isolated not only in its originality, but also because there is no other hint of a sexual underpinning to the men's relationship. As a result, it stands out more as a gag than an insightful bit of business. In 1968, a troupe from Lyon, France, directed by Roger Planchon, presented "Tartuffe" at Lincoln Center. Instead of the standard roustabout farce approach, in which Tartuffe is a grotesque puritan, Planchon cast a handsome, hot actor whose understatedness brought a sexual tension to everything he did. For the first (and only) time, the play seemed almost frighteningly believable rather than an obvious satire of religious hypocrisy. Here, we always feel we are in the world of the theater. As Orgon, Brian Bedford has a plausible stiffness and prissiness, and he does make us believe Orgon's contrition. The play would work better, however, if we sensed more attachment to his family. Tartuffe is played by Henry Goodman, the English actor who created headlines last year when he was hired, then abruptly fired, as the successor to Nathan Lane in "The Producers."
He has had a fascinating career in London, but his work here is pretty obvious. He has a rich stage voice, which he uses subtly, but his double takes only heighten the ongoing sense of artificiality. J. Smith-Cameron is a suitably pert, sassy Dorine, the clever household maid, but her shrill voice is wearing. Kathryn Meisle is very sympathetic as Orgon's long-suffering wife and Rosaleen Linehan is strong as her meddling mother-in-law. The physical production seems distractingly overdone. The most attractive part of the evening is Richard Wilbur's brilliant translation, whose musicality reinforces the comedy in the verse. Wilbur's translations from the French have played a major role in the frequent revival of Molière's plays in recent years. One only wishes the productions had a comparable elegance and wit.
Hypocrisy will never go out of style, and so neither will Moliere's rambunctious comedy, "Tartuffe," particularly when it's rendered in that vividly idiomatic translation by Richard Wilbur.
Last night it returned to Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre in a good and solid Roundabout Theatre production staged by Joe Dowling.
The story of how Tartuffe - a sanctimonious and duplicitous religious caterpillar who worms his way into the simple-minded Orgon's affections and household before getting his comeuppance - is one of the great comic cautionary tales of the classic stage.
Told in suavely witty rhymed couplets - which Wilbur neatly changes while catching the upbeat Gallic rhythm - Moliere's tale of the trickster and the duped, the young lovers thwarted by age and a servant wiser than her master finds its roots in the traditional commedia d'ell arte.
But Moliere has an acute feel for the theater that is all his own.
What could be funnier than Orgon hiding under a table, upon which the lascivious Tartuffe is attempting to ravish the poor idiot's virtuous wife who only pretends compliance to expose the fraud? It's a masterpiece of stagecraft.
Tartuffe is played by the distinguished English actor Henry Goodman, whose last Broadway excursion was his abortive attempt to replace Nathan Lane in "The Producers." This trip is altogether a happier one.
Goodman plays Tartuffe with an almost compelling sincerity and a steely if unctuous viciousness.
But Tartuffe can only be as good as Orgon lets him be - and vice versa - since the two must play off one another with equal passion.
Happily, this Orgon is the magnificently baffled and confounded Brian Bedford, who on other occasions has made a wonderful Tartuffe.
To see Goodman and Bedford in tandem - one all smarmy ambition, the other all ingenuous devotion - is an absolute treat.
Dowling gets good, nicely unaffected performances from the rest of the cast, notably Kathryn Meisle as Orgon's common-sensical wife, Elmire; John Bedford Lloyd as a sonorous, unusually commanding Cleante, Orgon's brother; and J. Smith-Cameron as the pert maid, Dorine.
John Lee Beatty's settings are effective enough, helped by Brian MacDevitt's almost translucent light and Jane Greenwood's elaborately apt costumes.
But when all is said and done, the play is inevitably embedded in the battle between Tartuffe and Orgon, the role Moliere wrote for himself.
What is exceptional about this production is the evenness of the casting of the two, making this such a battle royal of acting that can cheerfully accept the unlikely royal intervention that terminates it.
The look of love beams like a laser from Brian Bedford's eyes in the handsome, absorbing new production of Molière's ''Tartuffe'' that opened last night at the American Airlines Theater. It's that glazed, honeyed gaze found among men who, having surprised themselves by falling in love in their autumn years, have also fallen into a dream. Mr. Bedford's character, a bourgeois gentilhomme named Orgon, looks so happily enchanted that it seems almost a shame that he has to be awakened.
Mind you, the creature who has so captivated Orgon is not your usual midlife-crisis-making bosomy blonde, but a bony brunette with stringy hair and a pasty complexion. This gold digger -- a fellow known as Tartuffe, by the way -- is portrayed with ghoulishly zestful appetite by Henry Goodman.
And while there have perhaps been odder couples in the history of Broadway, the most fascinatingly perverse sparks set off this season have to be those generated between Mr. Bedford and Mr. Goodman.
Before we proceed, let it be recorded that in the early 21st century Henry Goodman did indeed have the chance to play a flamboyant, fast-talking con man on Broadway and that he did so with flair, inventiveness and comic assurance. Mr. Goodman, you may recall, became the subject of last season's most dramatic theatrical imbroglio when he was dismissed from the comic role of another flamboyant con man.
The part was Max Bialystock, created for the musical ''The Producers'' by Nathan Lane, an audience-hijacking performer whose shoes no one should ever have to step into. But that was the task assigned to Mr. Goodman, a celebrated actor of the London stage, who jumped into the role and was summarily yanked from it after four weeks, before critics had a chance to review him.
Having now seen Mr. Goodman's charismatic, eely Tartuffe, who brings to mind John Barrymore being sinister in a silent movie, I have to say that I feel cheated by having missed his Max. But that, as they say, is another oil slick under the bridge. And it is New York's good fortune now to have Mr. Goodman strutting his stuff in high, nasty style in the title role of Molière's classic play about religious charlatanism.
Not that Mr. Goodman entirely owns this ''Tartuffe,'' which has been mounted with 17th-century savoir-faire by Joe Dowling, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and the set designer John Lee Beatty. If Molière's spirited comic fable has more psychological credibility than usual in this production from the Roundabout Theater -- which also features J. Smith-Cameron and Kathryn Meisle -- it owes even more to Mr. Bedford's plump pigeon than it does to Mr. Goodman's sharp-beaked bird of prey.
The problem with most interpretations of ''Tartuffe'' lies in their failure to convince the audience that a blatant mountebank like the title character -- a man of pious poses, Jesuitical speech and conspicuous lust -- could deceive anyone, even such a fatuous fellow as Orgon, who has brought this serpent into the bosom of his family as a spiritual guide. After all, Tartuffe isn't loath to show his true, darker colors to almost everyone else in Orgon's household. Just how gullible can a gull be?
Still, anyone who has watched a man of, say, some 50 or 60 years -- with his children grown and the grave in his foreseeable future -- suddenly start clutching at signs of new life will recognize Mr. Bedford's Orgon. Some men buy red sports cars; some acquire new wives with silicone breasts. This Orgon brings the same desperately hopeful spirit, tinged with eroticism, to his pursuit of religious enlightenment.
The truly wondrous Mr. Bedford, who delivered another dazzling profile in fatuity in the Roundabout's ''London Assurance'' in 1997, turns Orgon into a beatific study in denial. Rather than the usual stuffy, tyrannical paterfamilias of most productions of ''Tartuffe,'' Mr. Bedford's Orgon has a malleable sweetness. (When you see him backing away from his aged mother, played with dragonlike fierceness by Rosaleen Linehan, you get a glimpse of what shaped him.)
It makes sense that this fellow, probably troubled by new thoughts of mortality and regrets about his past, would fall into the crafty hands of a poseur promising redemption. And Mr. Goodman, while guilty of a few instances of forced comic shtick, cannily plays Tartuffe as a Svengali who has by now so thoroughly hypnotized his victim that he knows exactly how much he can get away with.
In the one big scene the men share in the play's first half, there's an unsettling element of sexual teasing in Tartuffe's manipulation of the besotted Orgon. Mr. Goodman, who finds a criminal coldness and working-class resentment beneath his character's hair shirt, delivers a Tartuffe who knows all too well that physical and spiritual longings are not mutually exclusive.
At such moments, Orgon and Tartuffe might indeed have stepped straight from those incisive paintings of politicians and men of wealth by LeBrun, portraits that invariably inspire speculations on the scheming personalities of their subjects. This would appear to have been Mr. Dowling's overall intention with this ''Tartuffe,'' which is set firmly in the mid-17th century and has been given ravishingly detailed physical life.
Mr. Beatty, who created the knockout Deco-style sets for the current Lincoln Center production of ''Dinner at Eight,'' does similarly impressive duty here, rendering Orgon's Paris town house as a wood-paneled, ormolu-accented temple to haute bourgeois affluence, perfectly matched by Brian MacDevitt's painterly lighting and Jane Greenwood's frilled costumes.
Not everyone inhabits this environment -- or Richard Wilbur's standard rhymed translation -- with the same ease that Mr. Bedford does. There are those inevitable, numbing moments when the moralizing, singsong quality of recited poetry descends. But it's an agreeable supporting cast, and everyone has his or her moment to shine. It's a pleasure to see the throaty Ms. Smith-Cameron (of ''As Bees in Honey Drown'') back on stage, bringing genuine warmth to the somewhat tedious role of Dorine, the plucky, truth-speaking maid.
As Orgon's delectable wife, Ms. Meisle, who brings to mind the vulpine slyness of the young Annette Bening, does wonderfully by the famous seduction scene in which Tartuffe is entrapped. And Jeffrey Carlson, recently seen as the troubled son in ''The Goat,'' manages to find fresh ways of communicating adolescent angst through Baroque frippery as the suitor of Orgon's daughter, Mariane (the charming Bryce Dallas Howard).
But it's Mr. Goodman and Mr. Bedford who provide the surprises of emotional shading that make this more than just another attractively upholstered revival. Mr. Bedford, in particular, discovers an almost tragic pathos in this oft-revisited comedy.
When Orgon is finally delivered from evil (in a deus ex machina that is presented with a perfect balance of irony and wonder here), he doesn't look entirely happy. In fact, the last expression seen on Mr. Bedford's face is that of a man who has just been banished from paradise and can't figure out why.
I must offer both my congratulations and my condolences to Richard Wilbur, who translated Molière's nearly 340-year-old comedy Tartuffe for the revival that opened Thursday at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre.
Surely it was no easy task to turn a play written in the French verse style of 12-syllable Alexandrines into a relatively folksy iambic pentameter. The good news is that Wilbur came up with rhyming dialogue that is both stylish and accessible; it is well served by the generally naturalistic delivery of the fine cast assembled for this Roundabout Theatre Company production, which is nimbly directed by Joe Dowling.
So I guess I have no one but Molière to blame for my having yawned through a sizable chunk of the matinee I attended. The playwright's bemused attack on religious hypocrisy may have elicited great controversy back in 1664, but from where I was sitting last week, Tartuffe seemed pretty toothless.
It's not that the tale of a scam artist who charms and swindles a distinguished man using unctuous demonstrations of fake piety has lost its fundamental relevance. If anything, with cable TV news networks duking it out 24 hours a day, the smarmy and superficial moral concern of self-styled leaders has become more visible than ever.
But the context in which Molière presented this pretense now seems more like the stuff of lame sitcoms. Young lovers alternately pine for each other and push each other away in contrived fits of jealous whimsy. A woman tries to entrap a leering admirer by flirting with him, but things get out of hand when her husband doesn't catch his preordained cue to cut short her staged seduction. Even more shockingly, a female servant emerges as more sharp-witted than her buffoonish male employer.
Credit must be given where it is deserved, though, specifically to a cast that finesses such trite roles and dilemmas with pluck and grace. Brian Bedford could scarcely be better as the noble but dim Orgon, Tartuffe's dupe, while Henry Goodman conveys with relish the title character's bid to deprive Orgon of his fortune, not to mention his wife and daughter.
Kathryn Meisle wears her haughtiness convincingly — though not too prudishly — as the wife, while as the daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard makes a fetching and, despite her predicament, not-too-whiny ingénue. But both women are handily upstaged by J. Smith-Cameron and Rosaleen Linehan, whose wily performances as the girl's maid and grandmother provide a welcome blast of sass.
Praise is also due John Lee Beatty's set design and Jane Greenwood's costumes, which reflect all too fittingly the handsome but worn quality of this production. There's only so much that even a pro can do with dated material, no matter how impressive its label.
A touching "Tartuffe"? Moliere's satire of religious fanaticism isn't usually celebrated for its ability to tug at the heartstrings, but the Roundabout Theater Co.'s subdued but rewarding new production finds some dark and intriguing new colors in this mainstay of the theatrical canon. Director Joe Dowling takes the high road here, approaching Moliere's comedy not as a rip-roaring farce -- the easy way out, too often chosen -- but as a gently humorous drama of diseased psychology, a tale of romantic obsession and its dangerous consequences. With a pair of consummately skilled actors, Brian Bedford and Henry Goodman, playing the victim and the object of that obsession, the production also becomes a master class in the kind of effortlessly graceful classical acting too rarely seen on Broadway.
Goodman's Tartuffe, the hair-shirt-wearing confidence man, is not, of course, the play's central character. The pivotal role is that of Orgon (Bedford), the rich bourgeois whose fascination with this fraudulent holy man upends his household and nearly bankrupts him. In Bedford's piercing performance, Orgon's thrall is rendered respectfully: While remaining rational, the man gently seems to enter a parallel world of beatific bemusement whenever the beloved's name is mentioned. Bedford's Orgon is foolish, perhaps, but never ridiculous -- the actor insists upon the truth, and even the honorability, of Orgon's feeling; it's in the bestowing of it upon an unworthy object that Orgon's misfortune lies. (Hints of homoeroticism are treated gently.) It's impossible not to be moved by the spectacle of a man so totally at the mercy of misguided affection.
Bedford, who nabbed a Tony back in 1971 for his performance in another Moliere play, "The School for Wives," may well be the foremost interpreter of this repertoire onstage today. His performance here reminds us why: He intuitively finds the pulse of Richard Wilbur's peerless verse translation, revealing simultaneously the sense, the beauty and the wit of the language -- but without turning his speeches into showpieces of clever verbiage. Most crucially, he underscores the pitiful humor in Orgon's plight without losing sight of the character's essential humanity. He understands that it is by penetrating to the eternal psychological truth of Moliere's characters that his plays can be made to thrive onstage today.
Goodman, too, is an actor with an impressive list of classical credits to his name. (His Shylock was the finest this critic ever expects to see.) The British actor is perhaps best known in New York, alas, as the axed Max of Broadway's "Producers." There are a few moments -- an anachronistic gesture of victory when Tartuffe narrowly escapes exposure, for example -- when Goodman seems to succumb to a wayward impulse to prove how funny he can be. The answer is: quite funny enough -- and no need to protest so much. Goodman is particularly fine in the scene that finds Tartuffe, exposed by Orgon's son, Damis (T.R. Knight), for the lascivious impostor he is, backpedaling hilariously, insisting so intensely upon his own sinfulness that he convinces Orgon of the very opposite.
But what is most commendable about Goodman's performance is just what might have made him an uncomfortable fit for Mr. Bialystock: Goodman, too, is an actor who instinctively goes for psychological truth rather than theatrical effect; his Tartuffe is frighteningly convincing in his rapaciousness, a formidable foe rather than a mere comic construct. Max Bialystock, by contrast, is nothing but a big butterball of shtick -- and all the more glorious for it.
It is probably clear by now that Dowling's "Tartuffe" is not a gut-buster. Performed on a zealously naturalistic series of sets by John Lee Beatty, with hazy lighting by Brian MacDevitt that emphasizes their faux-Old Master qualities, the production often comes across more as a brooding, dark-hued moral drama -- Arthur Miller in wigs and pantaloons -- than a scintillating comedy. It inspires a measure of wry smiles, but few guffaws, and there are times when some of the actors' offhand way with the verse leads to serious longueurs.
Pleasingly light-fingered peformances from J. Smith-Cameron as the conniving maid, Dorine, and Rosaleen Linehan as Madame Pernelle are in keeping with the production's subtle tones, even if Jane Greenwood's painstakingly accurate period costumes aren't always (the unfortunate Jeffrey Carlson, playing Valere, the young suitor for Orgon's daughter's hand, is all but upstaged by his outlandish attire: He appears to be wearing a Persian rug that a feral cat has got the better of).
But the evening's turning point -- in which Orgon witnesses Tartuffe's perfidy while hiding underneath a table -- works up a generous comic froth, thanks in particular to the deliciously witty playing of Kathryn Meisle, as Orgon's wife, Elmire. This charming actress is becoming something of a classical specialist herself; she is the rare young stage actor who is at ease with the challenges of Shakespearean verse. Elmire's coy efforts to expose Tartuffe's lustful designs, followed by her desperate attempts to delay their consummation and draw her idle husband from his hiding place, serve to bring the play to a ripe comic climax.
It then subsides into the somewhat labored exposition of the family's near-destruction and ultimate savior by the benevolent hand of the prince (read Louis XIV). But Dowling concludes with a lovely touch: As the vanquished Tartuffe is dragged off to jail and the family files back into Orgon's mansion, the proprietor himself remains outside, unable to take his eyes off the sorry spectacle. A look of strange wonder plays across Orgon's face, an expression in which relief and triumph play only a minor part. The depth and richness of Bedford's peformance are distilled into this final image, of a man watching an emotional storm that has shaken him to the core slowly recede. He's thankful that it is over, but he seems smaller and sadder standing in its wake.