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I woke up last Saturday looking forward to Turcaret, the season-opening offering from the Catalyst Theater Company. This was the troupe, after all, that scored last season with savvy stagings of Endgame and The Learned Ladies—a choice of repertoire that demonstrates not just range but the kind of nerve that’s gratifying in a fledgling company. And Catalyst had been talking up its brand-new James Magruder translation, too: Theirs is the world-premiere staging of this version of Turcaret, from the Baltimore playwright who’s previously turned out light, bright renderings of Molière and Marivaux—including not merely a Triumph of Love that positively sparkles, but also the book for a gem of a Broadway musical based on the same show.

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Alas. If there’s very little as entertaining as a well-tuned satire, there’s nothing as tiresome as satire played the way Catalyst plays Turcaret. “Broad” doesn’t begin to do justice to the loudness, the strained cleverness, the grim laugh-dammit-I’m-funny determination on display, but broad Jesse Terrill’s staging certainly is. At the interval, I found myself casting surreptitiously about for signs of fresh road construction, thinking surely the streets had required widening just to get the production into its home at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.

Terrill’s program notes indicate his affection for the “charmingly vile” characters in Alain-René Lesage’s early-18th-century romp: a grasping noblewoman, the penniless snake of a chevalier she’s smitten with, the buffoonish, tycoonish parvenu they’ve both been milking, and the scheming servants who keep picking everybody’s pockets—both literally and figuratively. But most of whatever charm the originals might have exhibited seems to have been lost in translation. Perhaps it fell away between the ungainly lines of Magruder’s translation, which goes clunk rather more often than necessary—even given the play’s fondness for the comic potential of a nouveau riche at large in the salons of the Paris aristocracy. Or perhaps the charm went missing when Terrill updated the play’s period to the Roaring ’20s, where the class distinctions on which it turns don’t make quite as much sense.

More likely, it was the translation of the characters from page to stage that did them in. It’s not merely that Scott Fortier’s puppet master of a manservant—Turcaret is a kind of Parisian-demimonde version of The Sting, with Fortier’s cunning Frontin running everybody’s game plus a couple of his own—comes across as a whit less winsome than the actor seems to imagine. It’s not merely that September Marie Fortier’s baroness isn’t a great deal more genteel than her lout of a suitor. And it’s not merely that there’s no real spark between the lady and her chevalier, the suitably reptilian Eric Singdahlsen. It’s that these three performances, along with Giorgos Tsappas’ glamour-on-a-budget deco set, are most of what the production can claim as assets.

What’s left are the liabilities: Richard Pelzman’s performance, bigger than the company’s modest home from the moment he introduces his sweating, stentorian title character, whose money is the object of everyone’s ungentle affections; Wendy Wilmer’s two incidental characters, so thoroughly overimagined and overplayed that they become plot-stopping distractions; Ellen Young’s impertinent chambermaid, who’s rather too earthy and forceful to be a successful soubrette. Young fares no better when she returns, ludicrously Kabukied-up, as the “widowed” Turcaret’s gorgon of a wife in the play’s plot-capping final twist. (The Carmen Miranda drag that Rhonda Key has supplied for the scene is a glaring exception to an otherwise witty set of wardrobe choices.)

Those lighthearted little pantomimes between scenes? They’re a mistake, too—smug, obvious, and nothing as blithe as somebody clearly wanted them to be. I mean, really: Isn’t “Let’s Misbehave” just a little too apt in a play about high-society con artists? Why not wedge in eight bars of “The Entertainer” while we’re at it?

Amid all the heavy-handedness onstage and off, it would be easy to miss the relative nuance of Valerie Fenton’s performance. Fenton is Lisette, the confederate Frontin plants in the baroness’s household when the first chambermaid’s lip gets her fired, and the sweetheart at whose feet he lays the end product of all his scheming. Fenton makes the character quick, canny, and downright…what was the word Terrill used? Oh, right: charming. It’s a shame everything around her is so thoroughly coarse. CP