Iago, Milton’s Lucifer, Wile E. Coyote—it always clicks when the bad guy’s the star. Coffee With Richelieu, Norman Allen’s reframing of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, charms you with the villainous mind of Cardinal Richelieu instead of boring chivalry or swordplay with safety tips. The play is silver-tongued and dark-hearted; if you like sitting next to people with nothing nice to say, you’ll enjoy it.

Richelieu, as we’ve probably all forgotten from high school, was the ultimate political animal. As France’s prime minister under Louis XIII, he invented the modern centralized state—crushing dissidents with a pumped-up military and a wide web of spies. “Give me six honest lines from any man,” he once said, “and I will have enough to hang him.”

Movies of The Three Musketeers have always caricatured the cardinal as a red-robed Snidely Whiplash, obsessively scheming against the “All for one and one for all” gang. (Still, the role has afforded enough range to attract both Tim Curry and Charlton Heston.)

Coffee’s Richelieu (Paul Morella) has more depth, perhaps because he’s now dead. Allen sets Coffee in “a Belle Epoque sidewalk cafe beyond time: The center of the universe,” a dreamy space where the cardinal’s ghost holds forth on life and power while downing enough specialty coffee drinks to give a barista carpal tunnel.

The action actually alternates between this afterlife and real time, where the Musketeers and their trainee, D’Artagnan (Jerry Richardson), have just begun do-gooding, trying to keep King Louis (James Slaughter) from discovering that Queen Anne (Shannon Parks) is carrying on with the Brit Lord Buckingham (Christopher Lane).

Richelieu, who wants to expose Anne as a traitor, is a cheerful Machiavelli, sucking calmly on a mocha-coated spoon as he parries D’Artagnan’s woolly-headedness with cynicism. Forget the socialist Gospels, he says—they lead to chaos. (He prefers the stolid, church-building tales of the Epistles.)

He also thinks betrayers such as Judas and Lancelot are the true heroes in life, the ones who sacrifice themselves for the sake of the story. Richelieu takes D’Artagnan apart in fencing and then cuts the boy even deeper by dismantling his youthful fantasies about love and courage. “I’m ready for anything!” D’Artagnan shouts at one point. “Anything but critical thought,” spits the cardinal.

The first act of Coffee has more than enough thought (and carping). It’s an entertainment of ideas in the playful spirit of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, veering among camp, conversation, diatribe, and artifice. (At one point, Gandhi pops in for a glass of water.)

Under the guise of giving advice, each character pushes the impressionable D’Artagnan around like a chess piece—his new girlfriend, Constance (Susan Lynskey), the Queen’s maid; Milady (Valerie Leonard), Richelieu’s Mata Hari; and, of course, the Musketeers, here a bit overfed but still handy with rapier wits and the occasional rapier. One of the interesting qualities to Coffee is that everyone eventually sounds as realpolitik as Richelieu. Led by the cardinal (looking diabolic in his red cloak and pointy facial hair), they tempt D’Artagnan in a dozen different directions.

The actors are often wittily cast in double roles that echo each other (Slaughter as the dandyish Porthos and the foppish Louis; Lane as Athos—the estranged husband of Milady—as well as Buckingham, whom Milady murders). Meanwhile, Richardson plays D’Artagnan with tousled hair and a figurative milk mustache, and Lynskey’s Constance displays an appealing confidence.

Leonard’s Milady, however, is a vampy terror, her breasts jutting out like torpedoes and her mien venomous enough to poison an asp. In one nice scene, she drags D’Artagnan across the stage by his sword and then, applying two fingers to his temples, reads his fantasies about her. In another, she rapes Buckingham’s hand with her tongue before poisoning him. All Richelieu’s repressed sexuality gets poured into her; amid a fine ensemble, she’s the one who brings you to attention.

Morella’s Richelieu is less successful—a bit stentorian and lacking sufficient relish. As Coffee proceeds, he recedes, until the play loses touch with him and thus its amoral center. Allen’s second act doesn’t help, either, by giving in to the familiar Musketeer melodrama. Action supplants discussion—a mistake, because the first-act banter really moves.

Jim Petosa directs individual scenes with snap. But if the play does have some through-lines of thought, they’ve slipped out of grasp well before the end. And Allen’s taste for camp gets the best of him. For example, the appearance of Lynskey as Jacqueline Onassis gets big laughs, but it doesn’t amount to anything.

Coffee is a new play, though, and this premiere has room to grow and smart production values to support it. Tom Sturge’s lighting is moody and nimble, and scenic designer Harry Feiner floats lazy clouds and a papier-mache sun over arches supported by exposed gridwork, as if majesty itself is under construction.

Indeed, the play delivers its highs when it stresses the self-consciousness and theatricality of one’s role in life. Though D’Artagnan’s two loves die as he’s trying to decide who he is, Richelieu is well past all that. “Each of us thinks we are the center of the universe,” he says. “Some of us are right.” After almost 400 years, he’s finally a star; and for a very interesting first hour or so, Coffee is his cup of tea. CP