No clown in Houston is more limber, rubber-faced and flat-out hysterical than funnyman Jef Johnson. These days he's cavorting across the stage at Main Street Theater in Molière's famous farce The Misanthrope. As Alceste, hater of humankind extraordinaire, Johnson shows what can happen when a man gets so pumped up on his own self-righteous virtue that he turns himself into the biggest ass of all.
Under Rebecca Greene Udden's steady direction, Molière's 17th-century world of foppish fashion and ridiculous social mores becomes timeless. Using poet Richard Wilbur's charming translation of rhyming couplets, Udden has found all that is new in this very old play. The action takes place in a rarefied, open-air coffee shop, the sort that serves espressos with tiny silver spoons and lattes with big foaming heads. Designer Boris Kaplun has pulled the feel of ruffled French aristocracy into the modern age with his exquisitely silly set. Both beautiful and cartoonish, this is a world of curved rotating glass doors, curlicue-painted floors and dainty round tables at which both men and women perch like puffed-up doves.
Among his finely feathered contemporaries sits Alceste. He drinks his coffee black, clanks his spoon with perfect indiscretion and buries his nose in a novel (by Kafka) so as to avoid the gossiping ninnies that swirl around him. Even so, it isn't long before he's accosted by Oronte (Anthony Marble), a curly-haired, self-indulgent weasel who makes the mistake of reading his very bad sonnet to Alceste. "Don't dare shrink from telling me exactly what you think," he declares once he's finished with his fatuous verse.
Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard
Through April 21; 713-524-6706. $20-$30
Alceste, who wants nothing more than to be brutally honest with the world, obliges Oronte's terrible wish: "I might write something just as shoddy, but then I wouldn't show it to everybody." When the wounded Oronte takes him to court for slander, Alceste discovers just how much such honesty can cost a man. His one true friend, Philinte (Jerry Miller), had warned him that "the social fabric would come undone" were he to run around saying exactly what he thinks.
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To complicate matters further, Alceste happens to be in love with Celimene (Kristina Short), the biggest, and the prettiest, liar of them all. In fact, every man who wanders into this world of trumped-up manners is smitten with the curvy, kitteny brunette. Poor Alceste, whose head rules his diamond-hard heart in most every human interaction, can't stop the blood from pounding every time he sees her. He can't see his lovely lady for who she really is. While Alceste wants to hermit himself away from the human race so that he can avoid all the pedestrian folly of gossip and false compliments, Celimene wants to natter on at the center of every party. To that end, she has written every suitor in her circle a fond little note telling him how much she adores him, and how much she despises all the others. It isn't long before the letters are revealed (as private catty letters are wont to be).
Honest Alceste turns out to be the biggest dunce of all. While many other women, including the "virtuous" Arsinoe (played with hysterical prudishness by Michelle Britton) and the level-headed Eliante (Laura Hooper), vie for the upright man's attention, he's blinded by the gorgeous gossiper. When Celimene's true feelings are revealed, Alceste becomes the laughingstock of the coffeehouse set.
One of the best things about this production is the palpable chemistry between Johnson's Alceste and Short's Celimene. These energetic actors know how to translate one-dimensional cartoon double-takes into the 3-D world of real human interaction. Dressed in Rula Clint's coquettish costumes that synthesize 17th-century flounce with modern-day vamp, they throw darts of fiery passion with every fleeting glance and match each other's impish clowning gesture for gesture. Short shakes her hips and Johnson contorts his arms and legs into spasms of unmet desire. The opening-night audience hooted every time these two met on stage to duke it out in the ring of love.
Udden's supporting cast is competent. Mick Petersen is especially amusing in the thankless (and silent) role of the waiter. But the weight of this lively and charming production falls on the shoulders of Johnson and Short. And they carry it with ease.