Alceste loves the beautiful young widow Célimène, who runs a parlor in haute Parisian society, among people who lie and backbite to curry favor with the court. "You hate the values she personifies/ Yet she's a perfect beauty in your eyes," says his friend Philinte in Constance Congdon's new translation at the ACT. Isn't that a perfect indictment of Humbert Humbert? The old European aesthete finds America's vapid youth culture gauche, but his gum-snapping Lolita is beautiful to him. Both authors paint a complex, love-hate relationship with a society by centering on a romance; the major difference between the two is that sentiment compromises Alceste, whereas Humbert is already a pervert.
Of course, Molière doesn't ignore the rich opportunities provided by his setting to lacerate certain figures of the French aristocracy. Fops in culottes and cascading wigs cry out for satire. Since those old costumes can be alienating, though, most directors try to update them. (Charles Randolph-Wright's very funny Tartuffe last year was set in North Carolina.) Carey Perloff's current production goes the other way. Perloff whips up cascading wigs like so many cheap meringues, and sails florid period costumes (by Beaver Bauer) onto a sleek, modern-looking stage with floating scrims colored blue or green. The costumes are half the fun. They clash with the set and mock the aristocrats' obsession with courtly conformity.
Actually, the costumes are most of the fun. My favorite character in this Misanthrope is Oronte, the blowhard who recites a terrible sonnet written for Célimène, then sues Alceste for mocking it. Anthony Fusco plays Oronte perfectly in a yellow coat, frilly shirt, and a two-peaked massif of wheat-blond hair tied with a ribbon. He perches on one knee on Célimène's bed to recite the poem, rolls his r's, pauses to apologize for the poem's imperfections, then storms out in a magnificent dudgeon when Alceste fails to keep his frank mouth shut. Two other suitors of Célimène, the marquises Acaste and Clitandre (played by Patrick McNulty and Chris Ferry, respectively), soar in and out in peach and lime; in one scene Acaste indulges in an amusing solo ballet with four rolling mirrors. "When I look at myself," he tells Clitandre, "I cannot see a reason to be displeased with me."
The frivolity and narcissism don't look like San Francisco's frivolity and narcissism, but they still hold a looking glass up to a city that grows fluffier, phonier, and more conformist as its financial fortunes rise. Perloff makes her Misanthrope relevant by leaving the costumes alone. It's a nice trick. The show itself would be even nicer if it were balanced by a charismatic Alceste. David Adkins, who plays him, is boring. In an appropriately dull vest and coat, leaving his own hair tied in a modest ponytail and striking all the right melancholy postures, Adkins still manages to show none of Alceste's self-conviction or passion for truth. He communicates the hero's contradictions by making his misanthropy seem a bit silly without first making it compelling. The result is a wimpy foil for the frothiness mounting around him. It doesn't matter that Alceste eventually contradicts himself: He needs to seem heroic at first, flaring with angry idealism. He should be reckless where Adkins just looks peevish.
He improves after intermission, when Alceste vents his jealousy over Célimène. Adkins stalks back and forth, half-insane, braying helplessly that he wants to "punish her-r-r" for loving Oronte. He shows the misanthrope's paranoid self-destruction, but he never becomes the show's center of gravity. That distinction goes to René Augesen, as Célimène. She can be coquettish and sweet, cute and fake, but can also find a crisp undertone that makes the conniving young widow seem unusually honest. Her love for Alceste -- which Alceste doesn't trust -- is real, and Augesen expresses it in the fourth act with a beautifully fervent, wounded speech.
Gregory Wallace also has a good speech or two as Philinte, Alceste's Sancho Panza, and Kimberly King stands out as Arsinoë, the self-righteous old maid who takes a nice pile of abuse when she comes to warn Célimène that her reputation may be in danger.
The show overall is engrossing as long as you can forget the sometimes awkward verse: Constance Congdon's new translation is really an adaptation of a prose translation by Virginia Scott, and it has the virtue of not trying to improve on Richard Wilbur's definitive version. Congdon sometimes stretches two lines into four and springs the occasional rhyme; if she tried for more discipline, it would sound forced. As it is, the audience laughs at clumsy turns of phrase the way they laugh at the ridiculous costumes. For example, Philinte says, "I've said it before -- Alceste, awaken!" when he really means, "Pull your fucking head out, Alceste." Most of the language flows, however.
When the play premiered in 1666, Molière played Alceste opposite his Lolita-like young wife, Armande (who was a sort of stepdaughter to him, if not actually his daughter). The controversy surrounding that first performance -- never mind Molière's arrogance -- must have been electric, and some fraction of the hero's merry pride is what this production lacks.