Looking for a "demonstration of the blackness of this generation"? Seek out the TheatreWorks West presentation of "The Misanthrope."
Director J. Russell Lees says he was inspired by Barry Manilow to set Moliere's 17th-century play in modern-day Hollywood. The frivolity of lawsuits is one of the themes of the play - along with themes about the insincere flatteries of modern conversation and true love being possessive yet fickle. Manilow's suit against a L.A. radio station which advertised "We don't play Barry Manilow" made Lees realize Moliere was as relevant to our times as he was to his own.The modern-day setting works well in most respects. The themes are as timeless as Lees thought they would be. Even the language - rhymed and lofty - is appropriate because it seems slightly affected.
Dylan McCullough is Alceste, a fellow who thinks he is the only honest man in town and who is in love with Celimene, who is trying to juggle him and about ten other suitors. Anne Delong plays Celimene charmingly. Her dimples were clearly visible where we sat in the sixth row, so we could understand why Alceste couldn't give her up, even though Eliante would have been a better woman to love because she is also pretty - and much more dependable.
Saren Nofs-Synder is Eliante. She played the role well, but with perhaps too much gaiety. Too many smiles can seem artificial, and Eliante and Alceste are supposed to be without artifice.
As two more of Celimene's suitors, Len Childres and Brad Henrie play Acaste and Clitandre. It is a masterful touch to have them carrying a microphone and video camera at all times. What could be more Hollywood? And when they turn the camera on their friends who begin to preen and perform, Lees has a beautiful illustration of the frailty of humankind, always wishing to be flattered and noticed. Childres and Henrie also do a good job of acting drugged and drunk.
Gary Winterholler is Philinte, Alceste's friend and counterpoint. Philinte is not afraid to flatter people. And while Alceste rages against him for being insincere, Winterholler twists his lean frame into various yoga positions, as a physical way of demonstrating his side of the argument: Alceste is too rigid. Flexibility is also a virtue.
Maribeth Thueson is Arsinoe, a jealous and self-righteous woman. Thueson plays her part with a suitable amount of brittleness. And Cris Paulsen turns in an equally suitable performance as Oronte, slick and pompous.
Robert Snedeker is Dubois, a friend who comes to warn Alceste about yet another lawsuit that has been filed against him. His character is funny but this part of the plot doesn't hold up as well in a modern setting.
Ultimately there are several things that don't quite work. One of them is the set. If this is to be a retro-'60s-modern Beverly Hills apartment, it might have passed inspection if it were all turquoise and black. But with orange, yellow, brown and red touches thrown in, it just looks garish.
The costumes are also a problem. They seem dated. Maybe they would have been Hollywood-cool five years ago. Celimene's backless evening gown and boots are fine. But it would be better to have the men in T-shirts and Levi's and sunglasses - suggesting Hollywood - and to have a much more simple set - suggesting Hollywood - rather than to try to carry it off so literally and keep distracting the audience from the actors' words.
On balance though, Moliere meets Southern California, works well. To make the oh-so-virtuous Alceste into a smoker is another masterful touch. Lees is to be complimented.