by Moliere
Directed by David Fox
At the Lyric Stage , Boston--- closed

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston began the new year with an old (1668) show, "The Miser", starring an old hand at classic comedy, Bob Jolly.  Jolly has tickled many a funny bone at the outdoor Public Theatre under the direction of the Lyric's  Artistic Director, Spiro Veloudos, including an earlier (1991) outing as Moliere's  tightwad. For this reprise, Veloudos turned the turns of plot and the plotting of double takes over to director David Fox, who surrounded Jolly's Harpagon with a strong cast of experienced Equity comedians tripping to a brisk translation by Albert Bermel.

Jolly does not disappoint.  His Harpagon's attachment to his money, both the abstract prospect of it or the literal material appearance of it, is the basis for much eloquent body language-- and for a couple of second act ad libs that draw bigger laughs than any line attributable to Moliere. But in spite of the continued centrality of money in human relationships, the plot of "The Miser" no longer speaks very directly to contemporary failings. Harpagon's daughter Elise loves the family's steward, Valere, but Harpagon intends to force her to marry a rich older man whose major attraction is that he will marry Elise without her penny pinching father handing over to his new son in law the customary dowry.  Harpagon's son and heir Cleante loves the penniless ingenue Marianne, but Harpagon wants Marianne for himself -- even though the old man has to go through considerable mental contortion to convince himself that the marriage broker's is right when she claims that a modest and hard working young bride without a dowry is a bargain that will add to rather than diminish the old hoarder's net worth.

This plot makes perfect sense in historical terms.  But although parents who deny (or can not supply) their children the love and money they need to flourish are as effective today as they were in the 1600's at screwing up the lives of those children, forcing or forbidding their marriages is no longer something that that patriarchs are legally empowered to do.  Once children reach the age of consent, they aren't Daddy's chattel to dispose of at will.  And Daddy no longer controls the only "honorable" source of income.  We in the audience no longer have reason to believe that stealing the 50,000 crowns Harpagon  has buried in the garden is an appropriate response to the miser's shabby dealing.   If Harpagon's adult son and his able bodied servants don't like the way they are treated, why don't they go out and get themselves a decent job?  (See historical footnotes).

So the main motives of the plot don't make intuitive sense any more.  If we can't get excited about what seem today to be easily rightable wrongs,  what will propel the action?  The play becomes a series of illustrations of the behavioral quirks Harpagon's obsession produces: amusing enough, but fluff..  It is only at the very end, when Job Emerson's sympathetic and benevolent patriarch appears ex machina to set the generous counter example to Harpagon's greed, that one can appreciate the time slackened tensions that must at one time have complicated and deepened this portrait of parsimonious parenting.

I don't know what would suffice to correct the impression of thinness.  Certainly the talented supporting cast-- Diego Arciniegas, Denise Cormier, Bill Mootos, and Eileen Nugent as the young lovers, Sheila Stasack as the on the make marriage broker Frosine, and especially Neil A. Casey as Maître Jacques, Harpagon's monstrously mistreated double threat of a cook and coachman, all have winning ways and an abundance of comic turns.  Andrew J. Poleszak's charming and lavishly accessorized costumes are if anything too gorgeous to lend themselves to sight gags-- although the reversible hat for the cook/coachman is a risible exception.  Brent Wachter's bare set -- three pieces of furniture weighted down with security chains against threadbare damasked walls with gaping rectangles of unfaded floral swirls where the family portraits used to  hang before they were converted to a hoard of gold-- begins as a wonderful metaphor for the way Harpagon's selfish foolishness has diminished his life.  But it doesn't give director and cast much to work with as the evening wears on.   Finally, well into act two, whether from inspiration or desperation the the cast gives up on trying to influence one another and breaks through the fourth wall, letting in a breath of fresh air.   There are multiple excursions into the audience, ad libs at the drop of a popped button, and most effectively, frantic Harpagon, on the trail of his in stolen gold, dashing down the aisle, out the door, through the lobby and into the Lyric's cloak room, where he shouts back with wild glee:  "I'm going through all your coats!" .  Now that's one way to raise the temperature of audience response.  Of course it's only a play, and an old one at that.  But even a comfortable  modern can't help feeling a twinge of fear for the poor unprotected coats, and for the little hoard of subway tokens and crumpled dollar bills in the pocket of one of them, now at the mercy of this maniac monster of greed.