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Diplomacy, that elusive art, has found a new local exemplar—not in the chilly official precincts of Foggy Bottom, as it happens, but on the sylvan suburban campus of the Olney Theatre Center, where Christopher Yates is all ease and assurance as the smooth-talking steward who loves above his station in The Miser. “You can’t overdo flattery” may be Valère’s unsubtle creed when it comes to dealing with difficult employers, but Yates alternately woos with passion and equivocates with enviable finesse; his is a nuanced performance in a production that could use at least one more.

It’s not that Halo Wines’ staging isn’t fun. The veteran actress-director squeezes Molière’s antic comedy for every laugh in the script, then piles on assorted physical bits just for kicks. James Kronzer sets the action in a grand ruin of a house whose crumbling plaster speaks volumes about its owner’s tightfisted ways, and Kathleen Geldard’s frothy costumes are fashion victimization incarnate. The trouble is that the fun and the furbelows get top billing in this production; more than one gag gets underlined until it loses all lightness, while too many fundamentals—characterization not least among them—get lost amid the increasingly strained laughter.

And M. Poquelin’s best plays are called “comedies of character” for a reason: It’s hugely amusing to set a creative cast and crew to frolicking among the bright fripperies, the exquisitely foolish manners, and the hyperdelicate sensibilities of the aristocrats Molière loved to mock, but The Miser, The Misanthrope, and their siblings work a lot better if everyone remembers that once, in the rarefied air of 17th-century Paris, there were actual people who acted enough like these nutcases to justify such merciless parody. Yates, who relaxes into his part as though born to the butter-upper’s art, is one player who seems to know this; Paula Gruskiewicz, topped hilariously by a tower of braids and fringe posing as a hat, is another—she’s all polished craft as the matchmaker whose keen eye for profit finds its equal in the title character’s pinchpenny machinations.

And Susan Lynskey, whose sharp comic instincts include a pointedly funny way with the fan she’s always fluttering, is a third. She plays Valère’s sweetheart, daughter of the titular moneybags, and she’s perfectly credible as a woman who’s learned to manipulate her way around the hurdles her society denies her the leverage to vault. Together, her Elise and Yates’ Valère make a fine pair of domestic politicians, straightforwardly sensible with each other and deliciously sly as they try to steer the old man away from the profitable but loveless match he’s arranged for Elise—and rescue her brother’s sweetheart from the miser’s own marriage bed.

That young lady—Meg Taintor’s Mariane—contributes more than a little to what charm Olney’s production musters, especially at the blissfully awkward moment of her introduction to her doddering bridegroom. (That, naturally, is when she learns that the man she’d rather marry is—ulp—her intended’s son.) Her young swain, though, isn’t anything near as agreeable: The script makes Cléante out a dandyish brat, to be sure, but the usually winning Jon Cohn makes him shrill besides. And there’s none of the sweetness that might underpin this airhead’s fashionably swoony passion for the poor but pretty young thing his grasping old dad’s about to steal from him; absent that, he’s a broadly drawn caricature tricked out in what could be a circus tent belted with one of those absorbent felt-strip assemblies from the brushless car wash. (He’s got huge, floppy bows on his shoes, too, poor boy, and a really bad wig.)

It’s David Marks, though, whose underdeveloped performance most drains the life out of the show—especially in the endless second act, after everyone’s been introduced and the various schemes begin to trip up the assorted schemers. Marks is of course Harpagon, the wild-haired, ill-dressed old skinflint around whom everything revolves, and he’s almost entirely a cipher—a set of mannerisms attached to a one-note idea. What that idea is isn’t even entirely clear, though one recurring bit of nonverbal business—he collects stray bits of string and whatnot when others aren’t looking, squirreling these valueless things away in a mantelpiece hidey-hole—might be meant to hint that Wines and Marks see Harpagon’s frugality as no more than an animal compulsion. (One character, if I remember, does call him a jackdaw at one point.)

But if that’s the notion Marks has built his Harpagon around, it’s about the most wrongheaded one imaginable—and the background reading in Olney’s own press kit explains why as well as I possibly could. “[Molière] had small interest,” it says, quoting from an academic essay, “in the childish devices of trap doors, lost children, abductions and strawberry-mark recognitions”—one of which, ironically, gets played up rather than simply being played through in this production’s closing scenes. “What interested him was the way a man could act when vanity, conceit, hypocrisy or greed gained control.” In other words, Molière’s comedies traffic in the mingled humor and horror we feel when men let their passions make beasts of them; start out thinking of your character as a beast, though, and you’ve got nowhere to go.

Love and marriage, so central to the silliness in The Miser, get worked over pretty thoroughly in The Second Man, the American Century Theater’s witty, urbane new four-hander—artistic director Jack Marshall has called author S.N. Behrman, not entirely without reason, “an American Oscar Wilde”—and with Steven Scott Mazzola orchestrating the quips and quarrels, the show’s rhythms feel pretty much right.

Its balance is a trifle off, though. Brian Childers and especially Maura McGinn do fine work as an earnest, awkward chemist and a worldly socialite who keep getting wrong-footed by the romance that seems to be budding between their respective intendeds; he’s adorably inept, whereas she’s all poise, even in the absurd strawberry gumdrop of a hat Michele Reisch has given her for her first entrance. But Amy Quiggins’ pert, mercurial flapper—she’s planning a sensible marriage to Childers’ wealthy geek one minute, throwing him over the next instant to follow what she thinks is her heart’s call—frequently seems a little too frantic for such light comedy.

Bruce Alan Rauscher, the wan prosecutorial presence in American Century’s Andersonville Trial two seasons back, hasn’t found any charisma since then; he certainly hasn’t summoned enough dash to be convincing as the clever-clever dilettante who pulls everybody’s strings in The Second Man. Which is trouble only because he anchors what passes for a plot: Between bouts of high living, Rauscher’s Noel Coward-ish character, with a little help from McGinn’s wise, unflappable widow, manipulates everyone (himself included) into the relationship that will suit them best in the long run. But there’s not much confidence in Rauscher’s carriage, and the jut of his chin has none of the glib arrogance that laces his dialogue. And he mumbles too often through lines that ought to sparkle and snap—which is probably what tips the production furthest out of whack; language is all this charming trifle of a play has going for it, and anything less than crisp won’t cut it. CP