The Learned Ladies Comedy by Moliere, translated by Richard Wilbur. Starring Philip Bosco, Rosemary Murphy, Richard Kavanaugh. Directed by Norman Ayrton.
New York — Moliere revivals are not your everyday fare on local stages. Two such revivals, ambitiously mounted and running simultaneously, make something of an event. Unfortunately, the consequences of the coincidence have been less happy than their promise. The New York Shakespeare Festival's preposterous ''Don Juan'' has been followed by the Roundabout Theater Company's handsome, but unevenly acted, production of ''The Learned Ladies.''
The 17th-century classic, staged by Norman Ayrton at the Haft Theater on West 27th Street, sensibly observes translator Richard Wilbur's advice against attempting to ''update'' Moliere in the cause of latter-day feminism. In the published text, Mr. Wilbur points out that hero Clitandre's liberalism, for his time, heroine Henriette's ''attractively balanced nature, and the abnormality of the bluestockings (pseudo-intellectuals) will only be apparent to a modern audience if the play is so mounted as rather definitely to evoke its period.''
The Roundabout cast has also attended to this piece of Wilbur advice: ''Delivery of the lines should be letter-perfect, so as not to falsify the meter; yet within the artifice of the verse the actors should try to speak as naturally as possible.'' Mr. Wilbur's wittily rendered verse dialogue is articulated with crisp and fluid diction.
Problems arise with the stress and strain of Mr. Ayrton's overemphatic direction. To their credit, several of the players manage to survive the resultant exaggerations. Philip Bosco is a tower of comic strength as Chrysale, the submissive spouse who finally asserts his parenthood to insist that Henriette (Cynthia Dozier) marry Clitandre (Randle Mell), the man she loves, instead of the foolish opportunist Trissotin (Richard Kavanaugh). The young lovers are agreeably played, while Rosemary Murphy (Chrysale's wife) and Jennifer Harmon (his elder daughter) exude zealous determination as the bluestockings.
Some of the other principals - notably Mr. Kavanaugh's popinjay poetaster and Carol Teital's twitteringly amorous Belise - seem to have been forced into the kind of excesses that give affectation a bad name. As Chrysale's brother, Robert Stattel provides sibling moral support in a cast that includes Ann MacMillan (Chrysale's plainspoken cook), Gordon Chater (the vacuous Vadius), and George Holmes, doubling as servant and notary.
Mr. Ayrton's scene-changing dumb shows serve as incidental and sometimes amusing aids to a production whose visual delights include the artificial perspectives of Roger Mooney's setting (brightly lit by David F. Segal) and the opulence of John David Ridge's period costumes.
A word of praise, too, for Paul Huntley's wiggery and hairdos. Had the embellishments been matched by a consistent performance style, all might have been well with the Roundabout revival of Moliere's pungent but good-natured satire about this bourgeois gentleman, his learned ladies, and the intellectual-literary fads and fashions of the time.