On a weekend where many rushed to see what new body parts Dr. Lector would devour next, others watched a popular television actor hysterically throw flowers at his peers. Among Moliere’s less famous works, “The Misanthrope” remains a staple of 17th century French literature. This delightful play about courtly love and the dangers of honesty, marks the second engagement this season of D.C.’s Arena Stage.
Actor Michael Emerson of TV’s “The Practice” presents the character of Alceste, like the protagonist of an NBC comedy. He is loud, energetic and over-the-top comical. Alceste’s social rebellion feels lost in Emerson’s over-emphasis of himself. He complains about society like George Costanza would complain about buttons. He is, however, more entertaining than annoying as he attempts to wholeheartedly carry the show. His incessant twisted faces at the audience demonstrate how badly he wants its comfort and appreciation (remember, “The Practice” has no canned laughter).
This approach works well in the first scene where he is able to play off of straight man John Leonard Thompson, who plays Philante. The approach, however, hits bottom in his scenes with lover Nance Williams, who underplays her role of Celimene. There is no visible connection between the two. As Emerson makes the audience laugh, Williamson looks lifeless and bored. It is in his moments alone that Emerson’s Alceste works.
Kudos to director Penny Metropulos on making the drama palatable and interesting for a 21st century audience. The ensemble is generally delightful, from Carl Cofield’s reliance on camp (that being queerness) to Lawrence Redmond’s physical rendition of poetry.
“The Misanthrope” remains as contemporary as Thursday night’s episode of “Friends.” High-strung, politically active college students might find themselves mirrored in Alceste and his failed crusade against society. GW students will enjoy the physical and verbal farce commonly used on television comedy taken to the theatrical extreme.