Moving the vacuous characters of Moliere's The Misanthrope to the runways of the New York fashion scene is a brilliant move by director/adapter Adrian Balbontin. In fact, the opening strut down the runway by the various characters is one of the best moments of the show.
It's a sense that doesn't get sustained in this uneven reading, which packs a lot of good ideas and some good performances into a package that doesn't quite hold together.
Moliere set his target on the denizens of the French court who gossiped endlessly behind each others' backs while saying sweet bromides to each others' faces. At the center of it is Alcest, an angry man who isn't going to lie anymore.
There's a lot of offstage plot about lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, but the keys here are Alcest (the angry fashion designer) and Celimene, a sharp-tongued woman ensnared by the world of gossip. There are good people stuck in this world as well, from Alcest's counterpart Philinte to Celimene's socially awkward but strong-of-mind cousin Eliante.
Alcest is one of Celimene's many suitors, but his caustic ways are causing much consternation in the fashion world, as he offends everyone from an influential critic to various hangers-on.
Beyond that, the pair are at loggerheads about how they view the world. That explodes into anger in the back half of the play, which leaves neither of them looking particularly good.
Oh, and the whole thing is spoken in verse, with Moliere's famous rhyming couplets translated and adapted into English. The production also inter-cuts each short act (they last no more than 15 minutes) with some sweet folk-rock numbers by a live band.
Sam Pearson and Devon Cox give us honest and flawed characters, but their performances are pitched in such similar ways that their confrontations end up grating instead of entertaining.
It doesn't have to be that way. A scene between Anni Jordan-Amberg's Eliante and Pearson works wonders because the two performances offer such contrast. Jordan-Amberg's awkward character is still able to put Pearson in his place, which heightens the comedy in a way that many of the other scenes do not.
There are places where the production falters. Too often, the actors seem like they are wandering around the bare Bryant-Lake Bowl stage. The poetry also gets in the way, as the actors get lost in the verse instead of using it to build their characters and tell the story.
Still, the company offers plenty of good cheer. Jenna Rose Graupman's costumes quickly sketch out the characters (they really are what they wear).
IF YOU GO:
The Misanthrope Through January 17 Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St., Minneapolis $10-$15 For tickets and information, call 612-825-8949 or visit online.