Though the White House is currently occupied by a crew with both dynastic and aristocratic pretensions, the only American royalty with any real staying power is Hollywood royalty. So it’s not hard to understand the temptation to transplant to Beverly Hills the court jestings of a playwright who wrote to amuse Louis XIV. Where better in contemporary society, after all, to find so many tantrum-prone narcissists who think they reign by divine right?
A few years ago, the Round House Theatre set Moliere’s The Misanthrope in Southern California and created a promotional poster in which the title looked like the Hollywood sign. And a few seasons later, when the company returned to that same playwright’s oeuvre with The Sisterhood, Ranjit Bolt’s contemporary adaptation of The Learned Ladies, the SoCal atmosphere persisted stubbornly, making the Seine’s Left Bank more or less indistinguishable from our own Left Coast.
Now, the Catalyst Theater Company has made the switch in locales explicit. Returning to the classic Richard Wilbur translation of The Learned Ladies, Jeremy Skidmore’s staging finds L.A. parallels for the courtly behaviors and personalities Moliere delighted in mocking. The director pictures the ladies in question as a New Age bunch, working out with personal trainers to get in shape for candlelit poetry readings and worshipping a literary guru who makes house calls. The man of the house (Tim Carlin) is a junk-food junkie, his wife (Cam Magee) a self-actualizing feminist, their daughters (Diane Cooper-Gould, September Marie Merkle) Valley Girls, and the household’s maid (Roseanne Medina) Hispanic. There’s even a flamboyantly gay pool boy (Eduardo Placer) camping things up during scene breaks.
So far, so funny, though it works to the benefit of Catalyst’s production that The Learned Ladies qualifies as minor Moliere, so no one’s going to object too much to goosing up its humor with sight gags. The script—contrived in its plotting and less than subtle in its characterization—takes it as a given that women aren’t terribly bright, a fact that makes producing it a bit of a minefield. In the first scene, Clitandre (Peter Wylie), the romantic lead, announces to his girlfriend that he doesn’t really mind women’s having ideas, but it’s just not their strong suit—an observation that makes rooting for him difficult. The father of Clitandre’s intended bride is on considerably safer ground when he complains in more general terms that “thinking is all this household thinks about.” The more specific the jests about the title characters, the more likely the modern viewer is to cringe. Still, the author is as astute an observer of human foibles as usual, and his observations about the 17th-century bourgeoisie can be applied reasonably efficiently to 21st-century suburbanites.
Reasonably. Some of Skidmore’s conceits work better than others. Casting the servants—especially a cook who gets banished from the household for ungrammatical speech—as Mexican immigrants makes contemporary Californian sense of the linguistic class distinctions of Moliere’s era. And illustrating the insecure patriarch’s self-image issues by giving him a fondness for junk food (he’s forever hiding doughnuts and Twinkies from his wife) is similarly apt. I rather liked the notion that a spinster aunt (played by an amusingly tic-ridden Ellen Young), who fancies wrongly that she’s irresistible to men, might forget herself without a mirror handy—and flirt madly while her face is covered with lime-green skin-care goo.
But it’s hard to know what to make of dowry talk in a contemporary Californian context—or to imagine why 90210-residing daughters wouldn’t scream at the notion that their parents have the right to decide whom they’ll marry. In fact, even the tactic of mocking poetry-loving pseudointellectuals by dismissing them as New Age ditzes feels a trifle old-hat. Surely there are fresher targets available for scorn in post-American Idol America.
The cast is mostly fine, with one central exception: The foppish, entirely ridiculous poet-poseur Trissotin, who is adored by the ladies and deplored by the men, needs to be far more outrageous than Jesse Terrill knows how to make him. Terrill arrives on stage promisingly with a leap and a whoop, but is thereafter quieter and blander than is healthy for either his role or the play. His is the star part—a flamboyant, crazed, calculating, lecherous, obnoxious literary impostor—so it doesn’t bode well when he’s almost immediately upstaged by the women who make a fuss over him, and even by the pool boy who serves him a drink.
Elsewhere, the performances are brighter. Magee’s sharp-tongued harpy of a matriarch is hardly the actress’s most subtle work, but it’s an amusing caricature, nicely matched by Carlin’s milquetoast of a patriarch. Wylie’s Clitandre is appealing once he decides to match wits with the title characters rather than dissing their intellects, and Cooper-Gould is a love object worthy of his prizing.
Designer Adam Magazine has done what he can with an L-shaped space at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop that’s neither inviting nor particularly theatrical, dressing it with Scandinavian furniture and a portrait that bears a resemblance to the director, and creating a physical production that’s approximately as efficient and unpretentious as the staging. CP