Moliere Comedies Give Bright Vitality To Classical Theater

THE MOLIERE COMEDIES Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

At the Criterion Center through March 12.

Short of getting on a plane to London, New York audiences have little access to classical theater done with any degree of quality. There are plenty of productions of the classics done Off and Off Off Broadway, but they are usually performed by ill-trained actors who have little feel for the periods they are enacting. Or, the play has been ``updated'' in some postmodern, deconstructionist style, usually with the presence of video screens, that does little but baffle audiences, although they are often too embarrassed to admit it.

That situation has been temporarily rectified by the Roundabout's wonderful Broadway production of ``The Moliere Comedies,'' directed by Michael Langham and starring Brian Bedford.

The evening consists of two Moliere one-act works: ``The School for Husbands'' and ``The Imaginary Cuckold.'' The evening is a painful reminder of what we are otherwise missing.

Langham and Bedford are not strangers to each other, since they have been working together on notable classical productions at the Stratford Festival in Canada for many years. Both received Tony nominations for their recent collaboration on ``Timon of Athens,'' one of the highlights of the last Broadway season.

Although the two one-acts are not major Moliere works, they sparkle with wit and insight into the fallacies of human behavior, especially in relation to love. Performed in the elegant Richard Wilbur translations, they are staged and acted to perfection.

Most of the cast members perform in both plays. In ``The School for Husbands,'' Bedford plays Sganarelle, the guardian of a young woman, Isabelle (Patricia Dunnock), with whom he falls in love. He desperately attempts to keep her away from her suitor, Valere (Malcolm Gets), but she concocts a complicated scheme to enable Valere see her.

Bedford plays another befuddled lover in ``The Imaginary Cuckold,'' a play involving mistaken identities in which his character believes his wife is committing adultery and almost resorts to (comic) violence before the situation is straightened out.

Although the works are staged with economy and subtlety, there are wonderful bits of humor. Bedford is not afraid to leaven his performance with shtick, nor to play up to the audience. The supporting cast, which includes veterans like Remak Ramsay and Suzanne Bertish, as well as up-and-comers such as Gets and David Aaron Baker, play their parts with conviction and style.

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