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For Love --or Money

Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to most of the world as Moliere, was born a child of privilege. That he chose to enter the theater and, worse, become an actor as well as a playwright, took his social status down several notches. That loss of standing, however, provided fodder for his work -- satire that was aimed mercilessly at the upper classes. Moliere's The Miser, written in 1668, near the end of his life, centers on the blinding effect greed has on a host of typically unsympathetic characters, among them the miser Harpagon and his family. In a production that celebrates Moliere's language, but at the same time betrays his tight stagecraft, Main Street Theater has created a serviceable, if predictable, version of this classic.

Adapted and directed by MST artistic director Rebecca Udden, the play opens with a view of Harpagon's penthouse. Quickly, the thread of facile slapstick humor and flat stereotype that are key elements in Udden's production become obvious; it's a sensibility that doesn't stray far from Moliere's own view of the theater, one that held to the notion that if the audience's lowest common denominator didn't get the bawdy jokes and general cynicism, the production wasn't working.

The Miser's story begins with Harpagon running about with a bag of money, frantically searching for a place to hide it. As played by Jef Johnson, Harpagon -- hunched over and flailing about in ridiculous fear of being discovered -- is an appropriately horrid figure. While he's concerned only with his fortune, his offspring, daughter Elise and son Cleante, are worried about love. Though a tad more sympathetic than their father, if only because of their pitiable simple-mindedness, Elise and Cleante are still the shallow, pouty products of too much money. It is their thwarted pursuit of love interests that creates much of the play's comedy, especially since Harpagon has unwittingly settled on his son's sweetheart, Marianne, as the woman he wants to be his next wife.

As usual, Udden has chosen actors who are at ease with artful language -- there isn't so much as a dropped consonant among her cast -- but their handling of the production's low humor is less delightful. Shannon Emerick, remembered for her radiant performances in Arcadia and An Ideal Husband, is uninspired here, as is Rob de los Reyes as her suitor, Valere (though his deficiency is considerably less of a surprise). The two seem to be on their own planet -- an appropriate metaphor for love -- but sadly, it's an extremely dull place filled with strictly by-the-book meaningful glances and swoony stolen kisses.

Far better equipped to handle Udden's punchy style is Jeff Lane, who plays Harpagon's arrogant cook and coachman, Maitre Jacques. Lane is comically naughty as Jacques attempts to win his employer's devotion by interfering with a robbery investigation and pointing the finger at a rival. He combines the precision of Moliere's quips with a crisp sense of physical humor.

One of Moliere's few female character types that isn't utterly sliced and diced by the playwright's misogyny is that of the independent businesswoman. The Miser's version is Frosine, who's hired by Harpagon to help him woo Marianne. As played by a tarted-up Anne Quackenbush, Frosine is saucy and determined to get her piece of Harpagon's fortune. Quackenbush struts and coos when necessary, eats a box of Godiva chocolates when no one is looking and provides the production her usual sense of focus and class.

For all of its enjoyably light moments, Udden's adaptation has some weak choices -- especially a joke about a Kathie Lee Gifford sweatshop that's inserted into Marianne's comic family history speech -- that shouldn't serve even a peanut gallery's sense of humor. That an audience will laugh at a reference so uninventive, as they did on opening night, suggests that they might be better entertained staying home to watch The Nanny. There are other minor annoyances -- some unforgivably entry-level acting among them -- that pop up in this Miser, rendering it a far cry from Main Street's most interesting work.

Hey, all you yokels out there. Bet that when you saw those ads for Anna Deavere Smith coming to town, you pulled out your old Playboys so she could sign them, and ... what? You mean you do know the difference between Houston's most famous big-breasted blond and one of contemporary theater's most esteemed playwrights/actresses? Well, excuse me.

Or better yet, excuse the Chronicle's Cynthia Thomas, who was desperately in need of a visit from the Clue Fairy last week. In her January 19 Zest magazine story on Anna Deavere Smith, she lamely compared the auteur of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 to the dream date of geriatric millionaires everywhere. Apparently, Thomas assumed that since both women have tripartite names that begin with Anna and end with Smith, the ignorant masses of Houston couldn't distinguish between the two. In doing so, she insulted a city full of theatergoers as well as Deavere Smith. Worse, she passed up the opportunity to discuss something truly relevant: Anna Deavere Smith's role in the national discussion of the place and purpose of black theater.

Over the past year, Smith, playwright August Wilson (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, etc., etc.) and New Republic theater critic Robert Brustein have engaged in an ongoing debate over where black theater and black theater professionals should focus their attention. The success of Smith's Twilight, which premiered in 1993 and still draws large audiences, was in part responsible for sparking that debate. Her incorporation of black, white, Chicano and Korean characters in her play elucidated the painful depth of social injustices, and her empathy for nearly all sides of an issue -- something that's drawn fire from Wilson.

Arguing not so much against Smith's Twilight as for more black theater that's written for and directed at black audiences, Wilson denounces both the practice of color-blind casting and the use of all-black casts for productions of white playwrights' works, the latter a practice that's gone in and out of vogue since the beginning of American theater. The springboard for Wilson's argument is one of funding: Out of the 66 theaters that hold membership in the League of Regional Theaters, only one fits his definition of a black theater. Wilson argues that by funding projects such as Smith's Twilight, arts agencies are diluting the strength of black theater, all while claiming to be promoting diversity.

Brustein, who has never been a fan of Wilson's work, has argued that Wilson is dead wrong, that separatism isn't the answer, and that increased funding of minority artists and arts groups has created a crisis of aesthetics, one that can be summed up in the question of just whose standards apply in grant giving. As for Smith, she called for a town hall meeting between the two antagonists -- which happened this Monday in New York -- and has expressed the hope for a new breed of American theater that draws all audiences together.

Often, such esoteric arguments seem far removed from the average person's experience in the theater. But this year the artistic side of the debate, at least, is something Houston audiences can judge for themselves. Twilight, which played at the Wortham, is still etched in memory, and this summer August Wilson's Two Trains Running is scheduled for a run at the Ensemble (see SRO). A mixed play in a predominantly white theatrical setting, or a black play in a predominantly black theatrical setting: You buy your tickets, you make your choices. Or at the very least, see what each choice has to offer.

The Miser plays at Main Street Theater, Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose, through February 23, 524-6706.


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