Cheap Thrills

It is the best of plays. It is the worst of plays.

A program note indicates that the Denver Center Theatre Company's production of The Miser, which was written in 1668, is set in "a French Townhouse in the late 1830s." The post-French Revolution setting would seem appropriate for Jean Baptiste Molière's play, which explores the relationship between wealth and social position: After all, shortly after Marie Antoinette's head was parted from her shoulders, cold hard cash -- not mere aristocratic privilege -- determined who was in and who was out. And as director Nagle Jackson's version of The Miser reveals, this period, much like the present age, was marked by a parsimonious old guard who knew that clinging to its assets was the only way to survive among the newly snobbish nouveau riche.

But while the setting survives the time travel, other parts of the production are less successful. Unlike previous comic masterpieces, Molière fashioned The Miser in the relaxed speech of everyday prose. Gone are the fixed, rhyming Alexandrine couplets that governed -- and elevated -- the discussion of weighty matters in Tartuffe (1664) and The Misanthrope (1666); in their place, one-liners and sight gags giddily zing about the Space Theatre, revealing a comic genius that evidently escaped from Molière's brain before his deft pen could fashion it into high conversational art. The result, as translated and adapted by Jackson, is a sometimes tedious, sitcom-ish whirl through moneyed (and not-so-moneyed) society that, while buoyed by a cavalcade of splendid portrayals, leaves something to be desired in the language department.

Not that an abundance of high-flown poetry would remedy the misplaced incongruities -- and resulting boredom -- that pervade nearly all 75 minutes of Act One. But it might be more in keeping with the nineteenth-century dress and decor than are Jackson's parade of contemporary references. When the leading character, for instance, laments that the youth of his day are "pantywaists" and searches a shifty-eyed servant by sticking his hand down his pants while said lackey sputters, "I didn't know you cared," it's clear that Molière's play isn't a victim of "updating" so much as Jackson's tendency to laden it with anachronisms -- most of which, though enjoyable in their own right, prove more jarring than illuminating. And while The Miser might be Molière's version of a hastily written television show, the action would make more sense if it remained truer to the chosen period instead of borrowing too freely from a far-removed era (read: our own).

The tight stuff: Randy Moore as The Miser.
The tight stuff: Randy Moore as The Miser.

Details

Through June 10

303-893-4100

Space Theatre, in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets

That said, the actors do their damnedest to articulate the best of both worlds, earning smatterings of laughter throughout the funnier (and shorter) Act Two, especially during the final, riotous scene. Veteran character actor Randy Moore marshals the company with an enchanting portrayal of Harpagon, the insufferable tightwad whose money lust leads him to the precipice of familial disaster. A marvelously fluid performer who's equally versed in period and modern plays and whose talent for verbal byplay is made all the more enjoyable by his gift for physical shenanigans, Moore renders a warmly sympathetic portrait that reveals the method to Harpagon's obsessions. And he slyly unmasks the character's deviousness, showing us a man whose legendary ability to pinch a penny is rivaled only by his willingness to coolly manipulate his own son in a game of high-stakes romance.

Most of the supporting actors, aided by Jackson's deft in-the-round staging, deliver performances that fuel -- and are propelled by -- Moore's commanding turn. Kathleen M. Brady stirs things up with her frequent appearances as Frosine, a nosy matchmaker who wants to bilk Harpagon of his money by fixing him up with the girl next door -- who happens to be in love with Harpagon's aforementioned son. Always formidable when playing characters of great comic breadth and depth, Brady nearly brings down the house when Frosine talks in geographic terms of giving a man "a whiff" of her ample topography. As the slippery servant La Flèche, the lithe Robert Westenberg is as supple in spirit as he is in voice and body. Jamie Horton and that venerable master of character roles, Archie Smith, delight in their comically officious capacities as a magistrate and his clerk, respectively. Among the many sons, lovers and rogues, Douglas Harmsen summons all of Cléante's passion, and then some, when arguing with his miserly father about the object of their contentious affection. While Jared Reed's Valère comes off as more of a wooden bore than an earnest, enterprising suitor, his hammed-up recital of a romantic tale near play's end sets in motion a comic domino effect of mistaken identities and far-fetched revelations. Gloria Biegler, Stephanie Cozart, William Denis, Gabriella Cavallero and Mark Rubald each endow their cameo appearances with distinctive yet unobtrusive charm.

And last but far from least, as the poorly remunerated Master Jacques, who's forced to make ends meet by serving as both Harpagon's cook and his coachman, Richard Risso is simply superb. No matter each scene's disjointed circumstances or the dialogue's pervasive inconsistencies, Risso (who has for the past couple of seasons mesmerized as Ebenezer Scrooge in the DCTC's A Christmas Carol) imbues each moment with beautifully measured humanity.

 
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