THIS IS NOT Molière in Brilliant Satiric Vivisectionist mode (see Tartuffe) but rather Molière as Wry and Amusing Observer. Here he keeps his claws in, for the most part, and his greatest sympathy goes to his most hypocritical characters, those social sluts who talk trash about their own "friends" for sport. Molière knew those folks were easy, eternal targets, and set his sights on someone perhaps closer to his own mind, the self-appointed judge who cherishes a vision of himself as somehow distinct from the rest of humanity. He thinks he's smarter than everyone else, and he probably is, but not half as wise as he could be.
This production from Upstart Theatre, presented on the set of the Loring Playhouse's current production, Killers, is a competent, straightforward rendition, no more and no less. Here, Craig Johnson plays the title role, Alceste, who is in love with the phoniest of phonies, Celimene (Lisa Westmoreland), in spite of himself; and he's tormented by her romantic evasions. Director Antay Bilgutay hasn't updated the play, except for the contemporary workday-casual costumes (because of tight budgets more than anything else), and that's just fine. And unlike too many small theaters, Upstart has wisely devoted its limited budget not to fancy staging but to finding a professional-quality cast. The characterizations are mostly predictable, respectable, and unadventurous. And Richard Wilbur's rhyming translation makes it easy for the actors to occasionally lapse into choppy, sing-song readings.
Don't expect any sort of easy catharsis: Molière ends things abruptly, with only the thinnest façade of a resolution, and paints virtually all his characters as middling scoundrels and timeless templates of mediocrity--with Alceste as the biggest fool of all.
The Misanthrope runs through March 25 at the Loring Playhouse; call 827-3385.