Sincerity is a rare and valued attribute. Or is it? Moliere’s satire of polite society The Misanthrope explores this question through the trials and tribulations of Alceste, a man disgusted by the false pleasantries he witnesses, especially in court. The Pearl Theater Company’s production of the play, currently in performances at City Center’s Stage II, gives the classic story a sincere and entertaining production which is equally as affecting as it is humorous. Alceste, played in an impressive performance by Sean McNall, is a man torn between his principles and his passions. He despises pleasantries, hates manners and wishes to withdraw from society, but he is also desperately in love with Célimène (a lovely Janie Brookshire), a woman who personifies everything he professes to disgust.
Coy and charming, Célimène is adored by everyone and seems to like everyone – until they have left the room, when she begins gossiping and scheming with the best of them. Brookshire is stunning in the period-perfect costumes and her lyrical voice manages to transform even the most spiteful comment into a gently lovely statement. Only Joey Parson’s performance as Arsinoé, Célimène’s prudish rival, manages to distract from Brookshire. An outwardly pious woman, Arsinoé also lusts for Alceste and plots to snare him from Célimène. An extended scene between the two women, during which they inform each other what “other people” have been saying about them, delivered in dulcet tones of sweetness and concern, is a highlight of the performance.
Alceste’s silmutaneous love and scorn for Celemine and her refusal to live by his lofty standards results in a comedy of errors that reveals just how trivial and dangerous life in the courts was, when one wrong turn or misunderstood comment could destroy a person’s reputation or even force one to flee the city as an exile. After expressing his dislike of a courtier’s poem, Alceste is then called to court to defend himself on trial and eventually has to leave his home altogether. While the situation is truly absurd, the cast performs the scene with such gravity that it actually appears plausible. This modest and powerful production’s humor and effect can be credited to the sincerity of the ensemble of talented and devoted actors. Perhaps even Alceste himself would be satisfied.