"Tartuffe" at Westport Playhouse: The Holy Man's A Hunk
By FRANK RIZZO
The show: "Moliere's "Tartuffe" at Westport Country Playhouse.
First impressions: David Kennedy's smart and stylish production plays it for real in this tale of a religious hypocrite and the foolish rich man who has fallen under his spell, despite his family's pleas to see the holy man as a fraud. The laughs may not be as plentiful in other productions but the payoff comes in the second act when the comedy goes full tilt as do the emotions. Marc Kudisch plays the title character as a combination rock star and Magic Mike, a sexy Tartuffe who may just seduce you, too.
A sexy Tartuffe? You mean that old, oily fraud? Not old nor oily. In some productions, the role is so overplayed the character practically twirls a mustache and is appealing as death. But here the handsome, long-haired Kudisch plays him much more subtly, showing how a charismatic man of well-practiced charms and guile can sway the many -- though not all -- who seek unearned blessings.
What's it about? The plot is fairly basic. Wealthy man Orgon (Mark Nelson) brings into his household a professed holy man, Tartuffe, who mesmerizes him as well as his imperious mother (Patricia Conolly). The rest of the family, not to mention the impudent maid (Jeanine Serralles), see right though him. When Orgon's hot-headed son (Justin Adams) accuses Tartuffe of seducing Orgon's wife (Nadia Bowers), the master of the house sides with the sleaze, banishes the boy and, to spite his family, signs everything over to Tartuffe, and promises him the hand of his daughter (Charise Castro Smith) who loves another (Matthew Amendt).
In the second act, his wife devises a trap for Tartuffe that finally convinces Orgon of his hero's hypocrisy. But Tartuffe has the upper hand having gained ownership of Ogon's estate. He evicts them all -- including Orgon's level-headed brother (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) -- by writ of an odious process server (Jeremy Lawrence). To get out of such a mess would take a miracle -- or at least a deus ex machina ending -- which it hilariously receives in this verse play.
Oh, dear. Where everything rhymes? Relax, the expert cast makes the dialogue as natural as can be and pointed where it needs it, too. That's the overall feel for this emotionally-truthful but sometimes dry production, which is beautifully designed by Wilson Chin's elegant, topsy-turvy set and Ilona Somogy's witty, kind-of-modern-kind-of-not costumes.
Who will like it?: Some Moliere fans will appreciate the fresh interpretation, but others may miss the yucks that a broader style may have forced out.
Who won't?: Touchy religious types. Some holier-than-thou political figures, too.
For the kids?: Perhaps the older ones who can pronounce the playwright's name correctly -- but not the younger ones at all.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Cool take on classic comedy of the falsely pious and their gullible followers. A perfect morality tale for an election year.
Thougts on leaving the parking lot? Kudisch is best known for his musical theater roles. He's earned three Tony Award nominations. But his non-musical chops are equally impressive. He took a well-done dramatic turn in "Summer and Smoke" opposite Amanda Plummer at Hartford Stage and here his comic interpretation and timing is impeccable.
The basics: "Tartuffe" plays through Aug. 5. (An extra performance has just been added on Aug. 5 at 3 p.m.) Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Information: www.westportplayhouse and 203-227-4177