First, the good news. While other theaters give lip service to reviving the classics, the Grove Shakespeare Festival does it with perseverance and conviction. Part of that conviction is the notion that a theater's commitment to the classics only begins with Shakespeare, and must include the Ben Jonsons and Molieres.
Only last year, the Grove staged Jonson's "The Alchemist" (a California Gold Rush version retitled "The Scoundrel"), and its current production of Moliere's "The Miser" is the theater's second foray with the acerbic French master, after an earlier edition of "The Imaginary Invalid" (a New Orleans version).
This new "Miser," directed by Deborah LaVine from a Miles Malleson adaptation at the Grove's Gem Theatre, is a Roaring '20s New York version, on a pretty, sun-drenched Don Llewelyn set, with a glorious array of period costumes by Laura Deremer. The Grove does the classics, but it likes to see how they play in America.
There's more good news. "The Miser's" rather contorted plot line begins with the attempts by two siblings--bullied into obeisance by their miserly father--to marry against his will, and ends with one of literature's most outlandishly contrived denouements. LaVine and her cast make clean lines of what could be a very messy affair. With its warnings about the evils of materialism and the good that comes to those who give, this "Miser" would make a fine introduction to Moliere for children.
Now, the not-so-good news. LaVine's production takes a long, long time to get the comedy in gear, and at the center of it all, Jerome Guardino as the penny-pinching Harpagon is unthreatening, unfunny and uninspired. It's only when Kimberley LaMarque arrives as the devious Frosine (there has been no effort made, nor is it needed, to Americanize the characters' names) that a sense of Moliere's theater touches down at the Gem. And only in the second act does most of the cast seem involved in comedy that requires a balance of verbal and physical wit with a realization that each character has his or her scheming side--a darker double that makes the comedy extraordinarily rich.
"The Miser" should also have a dance-like quality, with characters moving in and out of Harpagon's sitting room in an increasingly mad roundelay of manners and plots and delusions. Exits and entrances, though, are generally slow, or too fast, or ill-timed: from the audience's point of view during one crucial moment of action, Harpagon's stolen casket of gold coins is in Guardino's clear view, though the plot demands that it be removed from his sight at the last moment. If these actors were making double plays, the runner at first would almost always be safe.
Though much is made of Harpagon's advancing age, especially when he is trying to woo the woman his son (Paul Read) has his eyes on, Guardino plays him too old. The price paid is that this Harpagon is not terribly intimidating; the threats, the bodily force, the stare-downs are all fairly hollow, as if the actors were going through the required paces.
Some of the actors go further than this. Along with LaMarque's sweeping polish, Rob Monroe's hapless servant Jacques is a towering fool, Marcelo Tubert's devious Valere gains comic force with every glance, and Rudy Nemetz's street-tough money lender is one of the freshest ideas in this red-white-and-blue version.
At 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. No performances this week, then on Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 and 7:30 p.m., until June 23. $16-$22; (714) 636-7213.