by Samuel L. Leiter
When Jess Burkle’s adaptation of Molière’s 1665 comedy, Don Juan, opens, we hear the offstage voices of the titular lothario (Justin Adams) making heated love to a woman; suddenly, he’s discovered in flagrante delicto by a second woman and makes a speedy departure. Only then does Pearl Theatre Company‘s version of Molière’s play actually begin. Burkle’s interpolation (it’s not in Molière, folks) is indicative of his freewheeling rendition, including a present-day vernacular allowing expressions like “Holy crap!” For all his well-intentioned efforts to make the play speak to a 21st century audience, however, the play’s humor, unlike its priapic hero, only intermittently rises to the occasion.
Don Juan, of course, is Molière’s adaptation of an earlier 17th century play by Spaniard Tirso de Molina, and is only one of many treatments of the legendary libertine’s story, among them Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, based on Molière. Mozart’s music is heard as part of Jane Shaw’s sound design, although, given the show’s frequent anachronisms, it could as well be James Brown’s “Sex Machine.”
Don Juan—something of a dramaturgical oddity in the way it ignores neoclassical strictures and the laws of plausibility—observes its egocentric, misogynistic, mendacious, atheistic hero piling up one sexual (and other) transgression after another. His conflict, essentially, is with the fates he keeps ignoring, no matter how he tempts them. Before the play concludes, Don Juan shifts from obsessive womanizer to self-declared hypocrite, clearly echoing Tartuffe, Molière’s similarly controversial offering of the year before. When Don Juan’s miraculous punishment arrives, it happens in a hellish flash, so to speak, and, apart from a final speech by Sganarelle worrying about not getting paid, brings the play nearly to a screeching halt.
A large reason for the failure of this revival to tickle my funny bone is director Hal Brooks’s emphasis on farcing everything up; the otherwise capable actors struggle to make their characters laugh-worthy by external means that sometimes descend into puerility. While each actor has his or her moments, only Peter McElligott in two secondary roles has the natural comic timing and nuance to consistently turn even the silliest dross into comic gold. We first see him as Pierrot, the foolish peasant in love with the equally foolish peasant girl Charlotte (Isabella Curti). They speak in a purposely ridiculous patois created by Burkle and suggesting Chico Marx on steroids, with each final syllable ending in an “uh.” Here’s how Pierrot describes a boating accident he viewed:
I’m-uh gonna tell-uh you-uh every-uh thing-uh, exactly-uh how it-uh happened. Because-uh, as-uh the-oneofem said-uh to the otherofem: I-uh was-uh the-uh eye-uh-witnessuh, so I’m-uh gonna tell-uh-you uh-what I-uh witnessed-uh with-uh-my-uh-eyes-uh. . . .
Nonsensical as this appears, he actually makes it work, and Curti does a decent job of keeping up with him. Later, he reappears, almost unrecognizably, in the role of Don Carlos, avenger of his sister Donne Elvira’s (Jolly Abraham) betrayal by Don Juan, and he’s delicious at bringing out the man’s reluctance to do his duty. It’s a shame McElligott wasn’t cast as Sganarelle, Don Juan’s cowardly, superstitious servant (Molière’s role), which might have aroused some true hilarity. Brad Heberlee is energetic, but this commedia-influenced role requires a more sprightly comic imagination.
Justin Adams’s Don Juan—much like Christian Borle’s preening Shakespeare in Something Rotten!—sports a sexy rock-star look combining Ozzie, Elvis, and David Lee Roth, with a flowing mane, Spandexed legs, well-stuffed crotch, open-necked blouse, and glossy jacket with fringes on the arms and wings sprouting from the back. Adams has the proper panache but, for all his strutting and braggadocio, his Don Juan isn’t a particularly funny guy. Chris Mixon does a yeoman’s job playing five distinctively different characters, including one in drag and the cleverly-costumed stone guest, while Jolly Abraham is lively as both Donne Elvira and, playing to the gallery, the mustachioed Don Alonse. Casting all but two actors in multiple roles, and letting them camp it up sends a misguided message that, maybe, the play is not the thing after all.
There’s nothing wrong in the troupe’s seeking to mine giggles from an old comedy by mashing up multiple anachronisms in the text, the staging (someone even takes a selfie), the costumes (by Anya Klepikov), and the set (by Harry Feiner); the latter is an odd combination of classical ruins fronting an eye-shaped background with an oval opening ringed by Renaissance images, all of it enclosed by neutral walls with four doors in them. But if the ultimate point is to give Don Juan a contemporary vibe, I wonder whether—given the liberties taken—a modern-dress interpretation might not have been the way to go.
Pearl Theatre Company
555 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through June 7
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).