Les enfants terribles

Stage West's brat pack makes The Misanthrope sizzle

How, you may ask, did 17th-century master satirist Moliere (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was the handle on his birth certificate) write with such incendiary insight on the vanity and frailty of human beings? You don't have to read too far in his bio to figure it out: The guy was trained as a lawyer.

But there's one other interesting factoid that may have contributed to his pitch-perfect ear for pettiness and bitchery shrouded in good breeding and high education. Moliere's dad worked for most of his life as an upholsterer in the French royal court, and li'l Jean-Baptiste sometimes accompanied his father on the job. The elder mixed among his royal employers with enough ease to gain his son a position as legal advisor in the court, which Moliere later forsook to form a drama company.

Surely, such a skewering sensibility must have been honed sharp at an early age. Whether it's true or not, you can't help but delight at the image of tiny, doe-eyed Moliere soaking up all the false flattery, gossip, and political maneuvering, letting it percolate until he reached the age of 21 and began writing caustic skits and scenes about the art of cheek-kissing-and-backstabbing that he performed in front of bedsheet backgrounds on French street corners.

His status as the authorized royal gadfly was already made by the time The Misanthrope was first staged in 1666. Not only had he managed to consistently dodge court anger, but his prose and lyric plays became quite the fashion among the regal set. Everyone, it seems, was convinced that Moliere was talking about the other guy. Plus, there was the illicit thrill of seeing insider gossip gussied up in such laconic, blade-sharp dialogue. The false and the vicious could revel in their own worst traits; despicable as they were, they become bejeweled instruments of combat through Moliere's pen.

In many ways, the idea of updating Moliere seems redundant, because even the weakest English translations of his comedies have showcased how the author had perfected the timeless art of the smiling put-down three centuries ago. British novelist-translator-playwright Neil Bartlett couldn't have picked an easier master to reintroduce to the late 20th century when he first made his name translating the playwright in the late '70s. He did considerably more than just switch languages with his 1988 version of The Misanthrope: He turned the French royal court into one gigantic Hollywood insider party of the '80s, with the guests circling each other in a feeding frenzy on an L.A. rooftop.

On page, Bartlett's update, with its references to thirtysomething and Princess Diana and closeted gays, doesn't detract from Moliere's story of an arrogant young man whose endless criticism of other people's vices doesn't stop him from falling in love with a deceitful, manipulative young woman. But it doesn't really add much, either. At least, I didn't think so until I saw the fresh-scrubbed, verbally adept young cast of Stage West's production of Bartlett's The Misanthrope arrayed before me in a tale of Hollywood rivalries. After I saw this very nimble, sometimes laugh-out-loud staging by Jim Covault, I had visions of crashing a party about 15 years ago with Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, et al., in attendance. Who knows if any of them would have the talent to succeed in a film version of Bartlett's translation, or even in Stage West's theater-in-the-round. It was the atmosphere of breathless stardom, conspicuous consumption, and scrutiny that surrounded them in the mid-'80s that Covault and his cast have apparently unintentionally tapped.

Alceste (Chuck Huber) is a young screenwriter who's too idealistic for his own good. The character to whom Moliere's title refers, he spends all his time whining about the shallowness, greed, and hypocrisy of his movie-industry contemporaries. But he doesn't like it when other people do the same complaining; they're just backstabbers, while he's a champion of "truth." His heart refuses to obey his better judgment on the issue of Celimene (Dana Schultes), a flirtatious young actress who dismisses her habit of entertaining many young actors and industry types by calling it "networking."

Alceste could do with a few more skills in that area. Despite warning from his calmer-headed best friend, Philinte (Michael Petty), he incurs the wrath of a pompous hotshot rival named Oronte (Jakie Cabe), who's also after Celimene's hand, when he disses Oronte's painful attempt at poetry. (Did you ever catch any of Judd Nelson's attempts at verse, reprinted in Spy? Snag a back issue.) Meanwhile, Celimene rather unwisely engages her "best friend," Arsinoe (Shannon J. McGrann), in a delicious catfight (perhaps the show's comic high point), prompting the latter to do a little research on Celimene's letter-writing habits.

Perhaps the most impressive element of Stage West's The Misanthrope is how skillfully the young cast spouts the rhymed couplets Bartlett has retained in his translation. They never let the meter overtake them, but are adept enough to pick the rhythm back up for comic punctuation. Chuck Huber as Alceste manages to be both ingratiating and frustrating, no mean feat considering he plays such a pill. Shannon McGrann is so relaxed and confident in her deceitfulness, you almost want to give Celimene points for swimming so gracefully with the sharks. Jakie Cabe essays an overbearing young Hollywood hotshot with such arm-punching braggadocio, you can practically see the Peruvian Gold dusting his upper lip.

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