Now that Hoarders is A hit TV show, we can marvel every week at people who refuse to release their death grip on possessions, no matter how banal or useless. But three and a half centuries ago, a playwright forever nailed that basic instinct in The Miser, now playing at the Clague Playhouse in Westlake.
Although the production has significant variances in performing capability, it's worth the trip to experience Robert Hawkes as Molière's money-lusting skinflint Harpagon, who wouldn't part with a penny unless it was physically and painfully pried from his clutching fingers. And in Clague's intimate confines, where the audience almost shares stage space with the actors, one is able to crawl inside this enduring icon of selfishness.
Of course, the theme of money-driven greed salted generously with shameless manipulation sounds a bit familiar these days — we've all been given enduring lessons in such profound crassness by Goldman Sachs, et al. But in the 17th century-set Miser, Molière (through a lively Albert Bermel translation) enables us to laugh at Harpagon's abyss of a soul and not wince.
Harpagon has two grown children whom he basically regards as useless money sucks who must be married off as soon as humanly possible. His real love is saved for a chest of cash that he's buried in the yard to keep safe from potential thieves — which includes, as he notes while eyeing the audience, "everyone."
Harpagon's daughter Elise is in love with Valére, her father's steward and a man of questionable background; the miser's son Clèante is head-over-heels for Mariane, Valére's sister. But Dad wants Elise to marry an old dude, primarily because there will be no demand for a dowry. As for Clèante, Harpagon has his own designs on the lovely Mariane.
The plot's battle lines are drawn, but the real joy in Molière is the language. Harpagon's schemes are complicated by many intrusions: First, the matchmaker Frosine (who is trying to hook up Harpagon with Mariane) is stiffed on her commission and vows revenge. And then the old coot's treasure chest is stolen, the police are brought in, and everything is eventually resolved in a whirlwind of improbable identity switchbacks.
As Harpagon, Hawkes uses his infinitely malleable face to register all the fleeting emotions the man feels — from avarice to covetousness. He rages with fearsome bluster and, when the occasion calls for it, coos with an oily unpleasantness that makes you want to take a long, steamy shower.
Mary Jane Nottage seems a bit bewildered when she first appears as Frosine, but she soon finds her footing and makes this manipulative woman a delight. As Clèante, James Rankin has the good looks and smooth rap of a young dandy, and Celeste Cosentino is sweet as the innocent Mariane. But Chris Bizub struggles to find the right combination of officious ass-kissing that is required of Valére, and Marybeth Morris as Elise is virtually invisible onstage.
In featured comedic roles, three actors have their moments. Frank Wilson creates some smiles as Harpagon's cook and coachman, although these pleasures are somewhat muted by the actor's evident self-amusement. Robert A. Branch begins a swift attack on his role of Clèante's servant La Flèche, but he never quite finishes the job. And Ken Kobus, as the weirdly upbeat police commish, channels Breaking Bad's sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman.
Director Douglas A. Farren happily keeps the pace brisk, and the two-act play goes down easily. But he and his production team could have ventured some wittier takes on Harpagon's wardrobe and domicile. It's hard to imagine this nickel-squeezer shelling out for decorative drapes over doorways or the lush, heavily worked robe that he prowls about in.
But when the final curtain is about to fall, and Harpagon has been reunited with his money box, everything falls into place. And we are left with the indelible image of a craven old man cradling his cash like a toddler rescued alive and intact from a deep well. Bring tissues.
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