Step aside, Neil LaBute: There’s another jaundiced genius in town, and he’s got a better pedigree. You may be younger, you may have your own festival going on at the Studio Theatre, but this guy’s got 300 years of critical cred—and downtown at the Lansburgh, a clean and clever take on one of his less-familiar plays proves a dead French guy can be every bit as cuttingly cynical about our society as any modern-day misanthrope.
The departed Gaul, of course, is Molière, that tenacious burr under the wig of Louis XIV’s court, and the play that exercised his era’s righteous establishment more than any other is Don Juan—a follow-up to Tartuffe that, like that famously outrageous satire on the pious and the credulous and the corrupt, got itself censored more or less instantly upon its debut in 1665 Paris. Unlike Tartuffe, though, the blunter Don Juan never quite got itself unbanned: What survived was a bastardized, bowdlerized script so thoroughly un-Molièrish that scholars have been wetting themselves since Stephen Wadsworth unveiled his meticulously researched new translation back in 2002. Now Western literature’s most dangerously attractive seducer is revealed to be a dangerously attractive social critic, as well, and after three long centuries in exile, the good don gets a clean shot at the very seat of power once again.
For that, thank the rapacious grin of a production Wadsworth has staged for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, whose home turf sits midway between the Capitol and the palais of King George the Lesser. And then thank it again: This Don Juan plays fast and loose and fleet and funny, right up until the acid of its author’s outrage comes flooding in to scald that smile right off the audience’s face, and it’s as polished and gorgeous a package as any Michael Kahn & Co. have ever put on the Lansburgh stage.
The story looks a lot like the other Don Juan tales you might have seen: High-living libertine (an antic Jeremy Webb) seduces everybody from convent maidens to peasant girls, while his woefully underpaid manservant Sganarelle (a comically resigned Michael Milligan) keeps score and various authority figures beg him to reform; the don’s ever-escalating crimes finally offend even heaven, which intervenes with a depressing finality. What’s so startling about Molière’s version is the nature of that final straw: Tired of the hectoring, Don Juan pretends to reform, planning to join the upright establishment and cloak himself in hypocritical righteousness, the better to misbehave unbothered. “To unite hypocrisy and respectability is to have wonderful advantages in our society,” he sneers to the disbelieving Sganarelle. “One has only to affect piety and join the tightly knit ranks of like-minded dissemblers.” Then, he reasons, any attack on his private misbehavior, however justified, “arouses the ire of the whole club,” who’ll “close ranks and vindicate my name.”
Make no mistake—and never mind the brimstone-scented ending—the playwright’s on Don Juan’s side. Our antihero’s plans would’ve seemed all too plausible among the posturing churchmen and preening nobles of Louis’ court, and behind the character’s penetrating assessment of how the powerful mask private vices with public shows of virtue, Molière’s indignation is obvious. The play’s public lampooning of those masks, not Don Juan’s onstage shenanigans, was what enraged the censors, and what’s bracing—and depressing—about Wadsworth’s re-creation of the event is how relevant it all still feels: Webb delivers that amazing two-page hypocrisy speech downstage center, bathed in a hot, harsh wash from the footlights and looking like the very incarnation of white phosphorus, and suddenly the air goes out of the auditorium as patrons discover that the evening’s jokes are all on them.
Happily, there are jokes aplenty to leaven the lesson, and Wadsworth’s cast, most of whose members will be new to Shakespeare Theatre Company audiences, delivers ’em with no shortage of style. The physical comedy is masterful: Fast-moving bits involving flying coin purses or conflicting promises to a pair of besotted rural women come off with a lightness and a polish that owe much to Wadsworth’s fascination with the techniques of Molière’s theater. (Influenced by the robust physical comedy of commedia dell’arte, the style acquired a decidedly French timbre; there’s a taper to it, an elegance and a flourish that Wadsworth’s troupe puts across with gratifying clarity.)
The same tasteful matte finish makes itself evident in the production’s more direct moments—in the consciously lyrical body language players create to match the liquidities of the text (Francesca Faridany’s Elvira is particularly exquisite), in the gratifying restraint of Kevin Rupnik’s painted-drop sets and the buttery-warm lighting with which Joan Arhelger makes scenes glow like one of Joseph Wright’s painted fantasias on scientific inquiry.
Which, it’s worth noting, this production sort of is: Wadsworth imagines Molière’s Don Juan as a rationalist ahead of his time, a pre-Enlightenment free-thinker so fearless that he has nothing but contempt for the soft-headed, self-serving compromisers he sees everywhere around him. Throw in the startlingly opinionated, dubiously loyal Sganarelle—who offers as much in the way of criticism as in dutiful service, and who mourns as much for his lost wages as for the loss of Don Juan’s soul—and Don Juan becomes a no-bullshit broadside as bold as anything Voltaire would come up with half a century later. “Those who can make you believe absurdities,” that famously polemical philosopher argued, “can make you commit atrocities”—and what with the bumper-sticker popularity of that phrase these days, the finely tuned fury of Wadsworth’s Don Juan feels like a tonic.
Trying works, perhaps, because it doesn’t try too hard. An easygoing portrait of an ancient power broker and the plain-spoken prairie girl who’s the latest in his long line of secretaries, it’s laced with pleasant little threads of awareness—literary, political, sociological—but mostly it’s just a warm, unprepossessing, pleasantly human story about two people trying to figure each other out.
The time is 1967, and the setting is the home office of Francis Beverley Biddle, one-time U.S. attorney general and Nuremberg trial judge. He’s 81, and failing, and before the day is out, the fresh-faced 25-year-old sitting uncertainly across the desk from him is going to absorb a lot of his resentment over both of those facts. She’s wise enough, though, to understand what’s up, and well-balanced enough to respond with the right mix of no-nonsense compassion, and eventually the crusty old Washingtonian and the fresh-scrubbed young Canadian work out a dynamic that helps him keep his dignity as he bids farewell to his faculties.
Playwright Joanna McClelland Glass was that young woman, called Sarah Schorr here, and her obvious affection for the old lion she halfway tamed might have made a maudlin mess of the play. But she keeps the sentiment in check and the pathos mostly in her pocket—when the two do begin to bond, it’s over the unexpected poetry of e.e. cummings, both the profanities and the pretty bits—and the stars of Gus Kaikkonen’s handsome Ford’s Theatre production prove so thoroughly irresistible that the play itself seems awfully winning, too.
Eighty-four-year-old James Whitmore plays the codger with a veteran’s fine, showy ease; his Biddle is all piss and vinegar and patrician bristle, except when he’s too tired to hide the strain of age and the sadness of loss and the anger of forgetting. Karron Graves (the lead in Arena Stage’s Intimations for Saxophone early last year) spends a lot of time listening and biting her tongue, and she does both with impressive craft; it’s when her character calls Biddle on his bullshit, though, that the actress does her best work. She manages the tough trick of making Sarah seem sensible but never starchy, unwilling to be bullied but never unsympathetic to the pain behind the bullying.
The production’s substantial and smart, especially Jeff Bauer’s paper-strewn mare’s nest of a set, which grows progressively tidier as Biddle and Sarah learn to work together, and Tony Angelini’s sound design, which stitches scenes together with apt and atmospheric clips—now a speech from a King or a Kennedy, now a fragment of NBC News headline delivered in the unmistakable voice of David Brinkley.
But the real alchemy at Ford’s is between the show’s two superbly confident performers. Together they’re wonderfully watchable, and they make Trying anything but.CP