A classic is defined by its staying power, the artful depiction of enduring human truths. Comedies, by skewering the social customs of a particular time and place, are more likely to seem dated than tragedies and so are more vulnerable to the updating impulse.
While Moliere doesn’t need to be modernized in order to be understood and appreciated, there’s much to enjoy in the world premiere of Brendan Pelsue’s contemporary take on the comic master’s “Don Juan” at Westport Country Playhouse through Nov. 23.
Pelsue follows Moliere’s plot faithfully. A libertine nobleman takes advantage of his social position, good looks and utter lack of scruples to seduce and then abandon nearly every woman he encounters. He sees himself as a connoisseur of feminine beauty in all its guises, a free spirit who will not submit to the “prison” of marriage. But women are objects of his lust rather than people deserving of a real relationship or even consideration.
Don Juan is not just a happy-go-lucky lover — his seductions and abandonments ruin women’s lives. He’s perfectly willing to make his conquests by force if necessary and to kill anyone who gets in his way. He stiffs his manservant and tailor and tricks and defies his father.
Moliere is amusing enough with his caustic insight into human foibles, but there is additional humor in Pelsue’s contemporary references. The funniest scene in the play features modern counterparts of French peasants — Pierrot and Charlotte, speaking at cross purposes in crude New York accents. Carson Elrod is hilarious with Pierrot’s malapropisms and sputtering efforts to elicit a romantic response from the phlegmatic streetcleaner Charlotte (Ariana Venturi). It takes the outrageous flattery of Don Juan (an alternately oily and scary Nick Westrate) to wake her up. Venturi’s initial ability to comprehend Westrate’s insistence that she is beautiful is both funny and touching.
Some themes of Moliere’s play are timeless: hypocrisy, vanity and the roles of social convention and religion in determining morality. But vast differences between 17th century France and 21st century America create a credibility gap. Huge power and wealth disparities continue, of course, and sexual exploitation is rampant, but women now have many more choices than marriage, prostitution or religious chastity. No one duels to defend personal or family honor any more. To see these behaviors depicted in modern dress and speech is jarring. At least to me.
I think the script is clever and not the problem. Rather it’s David Kennedy’s over-the-top direction and the garish sets that accentuate rather than bridge the gap between the 17th century and today. In the second act especially, all the characters except Don Juan shout and declaim without a break. It gets tiresome. (And those familiar with Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni,” where the statue of the murdered duke drags the reprobate down to hell, will be disappointed by the oddly anticlimactic end in this version of the story.)
While it would be more effective if toned down a notch, the acting is good.
The energetic Bavesh Patel plays the servant Sganarelle’s plight for laughs, but there is unexplored pathos in his situation as well as humor. His arguments with his master about religion still carry weight and bite.
Suzy Jane Hunt as the betrayed Donna Elvira salvages her dignity and wins sympathy as she pleads with Don Juan to mend his ways and save his soul. Elrod undergoes a remarkable transformation from the loud bumpkin Pierrot to the timid tailor Dimanche.
In explaining his choice to produce “Don Juan,” Kennedy writes, “I thought 2019 was the perfect time to revive this acerbically comic tale of an undisciplined, thin-skinned narcissist who blazes a path of destruction through the world, upending institutions and social norms, destabilizing everything, offending all decency and morality, and leaving a trail of wreckage in his wake.”
That’s a contemporary connection you can make — or not, as you wish.
Westport Country Playhouse is at 25 Powers Court, Westport. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings, with matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, which start at $40, call 203-227-4177 or go to westportplayhouse.org.