The tie says it all. Long, red, worn with a suit, it’s a sure Trumpian talisman. Add blasphemy and rampant licentiousness and you have a “Don Juan” for our parlous political times. Molière’s masterful comedy-drama, in a new translation and adaptation by Brendan Pelsue, is having its world premiere at Westport Country Playhouse. As it flits from one idea to another (bisexuality is also in there), never quite resting anyplace in particular, the cartoonish production, loosely directed by David Kennedy, hardly engages.
This is a modern dress rendering, underlining even more its contemporary references. In case we don’t get it, Don Juan’s first costume is topped by a T-shirt that spells a mirror image of “narcissist.” His next-to-last costume is a flowing caftan and short shorts, invitations to sexual pleasures, flaunted before males as well as females.
Based on an earlier play by Tirso de Molina, Molière’s “Don Juan” dates to 1665. Continuing the put-down of religious hypocrisy that got the playwright’s “Tartuffe” suppressed, Don Juan (Nick Westrate), too, mocks religion. Chastised by his valet, Sganarelle (Bhavesh Patel), the play’s conscience, he gets his comeuppance. Ironically, “Don Juan” was also suppressed in its time because it portrays the upper class as libertines.
At Westport, the play is neither comic nor tragic when it should be both, and it’s certainly not frightening. The acting is broad, the physical production (scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg, lighting by Matthew Richards, costumes by Katherine Roth) is bizarre and uninviting.
Under Kennedy’s unsubtle, scatter-shot direction, Patel is a frantic Sganarelle, Suzy Jane Hunt an effective Elvira and Westrate’s Don Juan a snobbish, jejune, brutal sensualist. As Don Louis, Don Juan’s father, Philip Goodwin looks and acts like Vice-President Mike Pence as he warns his son of “the coming wrath of heaven,” a curse reflective of Pence’s holier-than-thou evangelicalism.
It’s not that this “Don Juan” has no point of view. It’s more that the production is so bent on its contemporary allusions that it neglects the play’s virtues, glossing over its inherent brilliance at combining biting comedy with terrifying tragedy.