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A CurtainUp Review

Tartuffe is a comedy. . . for those of you who hold onto the position that Moliere intended to raze the Catholic Church with his play, please permit this version to have somewhat less serious aims. All I really want is for the harried New Yorker to come, have a few laughs and have a good time.
--- Jeff Cohen
Keith Reddin & Christa Moore (Photo: Kate Raudenbush)
Director-adapter Jeff Cohen's plea to enjoy Tartuffe as the comic expose of hypocrisy instead of a serious religious satire stems from the outraged howls of the pious after its 1664 premiere. The Tribeca Playhouse, where Cohen's latest reconstructed classic is currently playing, is just six blocks s from Ground Zero. This light-hearted Tartuffe, like the Monday night version of the USO shows the company has been doing (see Cabaret Life page), does indeed fulfill Mr. Cohen's aim for providing New Yorkers with an entertaining respite from the tensions of recent events.

Moliere's satire has had a long and varied history, including an operatic version. Pulitzer Prize winning poet Richard Wilbur's translation has become the yardstick for all others and Cohen acknowledges his version as being indebted to "Wilbur-ian rhymingi couplets. " While Wilbur's couplets are in no danger of sliding to a second place position, Cohen's rhymes are intelligent, accessible, fun and, with very few exceptions, roll off the actors' tongues with ease.

The plot follows Moliere but the setting has been shifted to a 1930s Manhattan apartment to accommodate the more au courant language and the presence of a Mayor à la the recently departed Guiliani as the deus ex machina to the happily ever after ending for all but the duplicitous Tartuffe.

For anyone not familiar with the impostor's story (which is actually the originally used subtitle), here is nutshell sized rundown: The wealthy Orgon becomes enamored of the scheming impostor Tartuffe, to the point of disinheriting his son and trying to force his daughter Marianne to become Mrs. Tartuffe. Orgon's family (except for his mother) and the outspoken maid are less gullible. However, by the time his wife Elmire makes him a hidden witness to Tartuffe's decidedly unsaintly interest in her, it's almost too late for Orgon's wakeup call since Tartuffe has managed to take title to his home and fortune. But justice prevails and Tartuffe goes to jail while everyone else is happily and prosperously reunited.

True to the period, this production takes its cues from the screwball comedies of the period. The eleven actors are often frozen into still life groupings, then burst out of their freeze frames to rhyme on through the frenzied farce. The black, white and silver palette of Lauren Helpern's cardboard sets (with four working doors) and Michael J. McDonald's costumes add to the aura of a series of animated Edward Gorey drawings.

The cast includes a number of Worth Street regulars, including Gerald Anthony as the title character. All get into the spirit of the production but the show's standouts are the women as well as a couple of the minor male characters. Crista Moore is a bewitching Elmire and a superb comedienne as well. She is especially good in the play's famous seduction scene during which she pretends she is drawn to Tartuffe so that her husband (Keith Reddin) gets an earful from his hiding place underneath the sofa. Newcomer Jen Ryan adds a touch of Irish to the role of the scrappy maid Dorine. When given some long speeches she tends to rush through her lines a bit, but she's perky and bright, somewhat like Daphne Moon in Frasier. Sarah K. Lipmann is an amusing Marianne. James Rana as Marianne's stiff upper lipped white knight (literally so as he appears first in tennis white, later in a dashing white outfit designed for motoring in a convertible) almost stops the show during his lover's quarrel with Marianne. Jeff Taylor and Adam Hirsh, in even smaller roles, are also outstanding (Taylor as the tough Sheriff's office Mr. Loyal and Hirsch as a Brooklyn-accented versifier and representative of the invisible and wise Mayor of New York).

Purists might quibble with this zany Tartuffe, but it made most of the audience do just what Jeff Cohen intended: laugh uproariously and often. And all for a budget-friendly $15 ticket.

In a new version written and directed by Jeff Cohen
Cast: (in alphabetical order) Gerald Anthony (Tartuffe), Jennifer Bassey (Mrs. Pernelle), Jim Hazard (Cleante), Adam Hirsch (Flipote & Officer), Sarah K. Lippmann (Marianne) Crista Moore (Elmire), Liam Christopher O'Brien (Damis) James Rana (Valere), Keith Reddin (Orgon), Jen Ryan (Dorine), Jeff Taylor (Mr. Loyal)
Set Design: Lauren Helpern
Costume Design: Michael J. McDonald
Lighting Design: Traci Klainer
Sound Design: Paul Adams
Original Music: Rick Hip Flores
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 10 minute intermission

Worth Street Theater Company/Tribecca Playhouse, 111 Reade Street @ West Broadway, 212/206-1515
1/12/02-2/16/02; opening 1/21/02.
Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sun. at 3pm -- $15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on January 24th performance
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