A play by Moliere in the Philadelphia area? Be still my heart!
I took a quick unscientific survey in the lobby, prior to the performance, and discovered that not many visitors to The Miser, presented by the Stagecrafters of Chestnut Hill, had seen one of the great French author’s works. This company usually presents modern comedies and dramas, but they do have in their long production history plays by Marivaux, Goldoni and Barrie. The very appearance of this production is cause for rejoicing. And it’s also very good.
I continually praise the directing work of Barbara D. Mills, with phrases such as “razor sharp” or “steel cut,” and this Miser is no exception. The production is well cast, beautifully staged, clearly interpreted and delightfully designed. David Chambers’ translation is certainly irreverent, with lines like “Your eyes are spinning like bicycle wheels” and mentions of Napoleon and other anachronisms. It works well, and American actors will find it easy to speak.
The costumes (credited to Claire Adams and Jen Allegra) are certainly not of 1668 France. Historical research be darned. Here is a delectable mish-mosh of periods that somehow define the characters and give the evening an Alice in Wonderland-style wackiness. Those shiny-buttoned vests, knee boots, tight bodices and tiny hats will be long remembered. The title character’s cheapness is well indicated by the set, designed by Scott Killinger and Marie Laster, which details a once-elegant house long gone to seed. Gilbert Todd’s lighting ably assists.
The comedy involves a nasty miser whose love of money (not what money can buy, but the money itself) ruins the lives of his family and friends. Yes, he is even shown kissing the golden coins. Jen Allegra is outstanding as Frosine, a lusty marriage broker, who seizes the audience with her hilarious costume, physical characterization, and biting line deliveries. Equally good is Dane Lavery as Cleante, the frustrated son. He is at once both a typical Moliere fop and a romantic lover. His every move contributes to the evening’s success. Proper support comes from the servants (who in Moliere are always smarter than the masters), played by Nolan Maher and Dan Shefer. Julianne Schaub and Steve Harding charmingly handle the traditional young lovers, with John C. Hill as the grounded raisonneur character.
Lenny Grossman plays Harpagon the miser, and has many fine moments. He is energetic and has a good deal of fun with the role, but lacks the needed element of impulsiveness. Grossman is an excellent actor who delivered a nuanced performance in the theater’s recent Any Given Monday. But he is not a crazed comedian. This Harpagon’s need for money never seems to extend from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. By the time of the famous Act Five speech, Grossman’s performance becomes far too predictable to bring the play to its proper climax. It must be remembered that Moliere suffered twelve long years on the road with a commedia company, and then played all of the leading roles when he began to write his own plays. By the time he played Harpagon, he could wrap the audience around his little finger with ease. This type of onstage training is hard to come by nowadays. This production is an ensemble effort rather than the star vehicle Moliere wrote for himself.
The audience left the theater with a good deal of excited curiosity. “Was Moliere a man or a woman?” and “Did he write anything else?” were overheard comments. Hopefully Google will be put to work as the Philadelphia area looks forward to more classics at the Stagecrafters.
Running Time: Two hours, including an intermission.
The Miser plays through Sunday December 10, 2017 at The Stagecrafters Theater – 8130 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 247-9913, or purchase them online.