Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
New Guard Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre
Through February 28
This adaptation of Moliere’s Tartuffe abridges Richard Wilbur’s translation to a succinct 90 minutes and transforms a witty satire into a heated ballast-filled melodrama.
The plot (if you’ve forgotten) generates around Orgon (Cliff Weissman), a wealthy man of property who comes under the influence of a fatuous religious charlatan named Tartuffe (Dan Stevens). Orgon worships Tartuffe and believes he can do no wrong. Orgon’s wife Elmire (Carter Scott), his brother-in-law Cleante (Jeremy Radin), and his children (Kira Powell and Alec Wilson) all see through this transparent hypocrite, but none can convince the blindsided family patriarch and his equally deluded mother of Tartuffe’s perfidy.
So smitten is this wealthy fool that he decides to marry his daughter Marianne to the interloper — no matter that she’s a very young woman passionately in love with someone her own age, Valère (Anthony Sorrells). Meanwhile Tartuffe has lecherous designs on Orgon’s beautiful wife, but when she indignantly informs her husband, he stubbornly refuses to believe her.
Director Satya Bhabha’s staging is set in the present day, on designer Tristan Jeffers’ unfussy but rather attractive set — what might be a tasteful living room in Beverly Hills. When the play opens, furtive sex is taking place between daughter Mariane and her beaux Valère. The action then segues to a boisterous modern-day party, with people dancing wildly to disco until they’re interrupted by the prudish and misguided Mrs. Pernelle (Alison Korman), who chastises them for their worldly ways.
Events proceed apace, as in the original, with the performers delivering their lines at a clipped pace. The contemporized Tartuffe (Stevens appears younger than how one normally conceives this character) is a buff dude in spattered corduroys and a T-shirt with a Christian logo and the title of the organization he represents, Helping Hand (costume design by Elena Flores). Weissman’s Orgon is casually appareled, convincing as a CEO working at home for the day. He displays indubitable presence as the obdurate target of Tartuffe’s machinations, while Stevens, exuding false piety, makes for a conceivable Tartuffe. After a bland beginning, Scott’s Elmire comes into her own in a climactic scene where she strives to fight off the rapacious villain.
The performances overall are uneven, but the main problem with this production is less its execution — Bhabha stages it adeptly — as its notional design. The material is played as drama rather than comedy or satire, and it loses much of its luster when shorn of the irony Moliere invested in his classic.
Atwater Village Theatre, Casitas Ave, Atwater; Wed., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through February 28. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-imposter-tickets-41592750035. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.