Moliere's comic genius at work on Broadway; The Misanthrope. Comedy by Moliere. English verse translation by Richard Wilbur. Starring Brian Bedford, Carole Shelley, Mary Beth Hurt. Directed by Stephen Porter.
The Broadway Circle in the Square has made an audacious but sure-footed leap. From 20th-century London to 17th-century Paris. From lightweight satirical farce to classic satire. In other words, from Noel Coward's ''Present Laughter'' to Moliere's ''The Misanthrope.'' One comic feast has followed another.
The Moliere revival is as crystalline as the six glistening chandeliers above Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's modish setting for Celimene's house, the scene of this battle between intransigent sincerity and tantalizing coquetry. Under Stephen Porter's impeccably stylish direction, the superb Circle in the Square cast treats Richard Wilbur's felicitous verse translation with all of the verve and grace it merits. ''The Misanthrope'' is a treat for this or any other season. As staged by Mr. Porter, it is sophisticated in the best sense of the word - blending a classic tone with the kind of immediacy to which a latter-day audience can readily respond.
In his introduction to the published translation, Mr. Wilbur calls Moliere's Alceste ''a moral giant misplaced in a trivial society'' and, in another aspect, ''an unconscious fraud who magnifies the petty faults of others in order to dramatize himself in his own eyes. . . . A victim, like all around him, of the moral enervation of the times, he cannot consistently be the Man of Honor - simple, magnanimous, passionate, decisive, true. It is his distinction that he is aware of that ideal, and that he can fitfully embody it; his comic flaw consists in a Quixotic confusion of himself with the ideal, a willingness to distort the world for his own self-deceptive and histrionic purposes.''
Brian Bedford's brilliantly portrayed Alceste epitomizes the contradictions of this contrariness. Viewing a hypocritical society with his cherished, contemptuous clearsightedness, Alceste falls victim to his own obsession. Whether he is demolishing the foolish poetaster Oronte (David Schramm) or berating the coolly and cruelly flirtatious Celimene (Mary Beth Hurt), Mr. Bedford preserves the touch of humanity that keeps one wishing he might learn some of his friend Philinte's more pliant rectitude. But of course, he never will. Should Alceste, at last, make good his threat of exiling himself to some desert place, an artificial society will lose a much-needed, if not favorite, curmudgeon.
It is the fervent vitality and commitment of Mr. Bedford in the central role which create so strong a sense of involvement for the spectator. In their own ways, his costars and the supporting players maintain the sense of a classic reality that transcends mere literal realism. The exquisite and captivating Miss Hurt plays Celimene's hand with unfailingly cool assurance until the cruelty of her satirical billets douxm comes to light. But when the shaken but resolute Alceste suggests she marry him and share his solitary exile, Celimene replies, ''Alas, at twenty, one is terrified/Of solitude . . . .'' The tragedy behind the comedy of ''The Misanthrope'' lies in the irreconcilability of two extreme positions.
Occupying the saner middle ground are Philinte and Eliante, played with reasonableness but never condescension by Stephen D. Newman and the winsome Mary Layne. Meanwhile, Carole Shelley creates in the figure of Arsinoe a handsome, if fading, social dragon whose censoriousness of Celimene deceives no one - least of all Alceste, on whom she has set her sights. This Arsinoe is a predatory prude and mischiefmaker - decorous, sharp-tongued and sharp-taloned. The general pitch and tension of the production are well served in the performances of Munson Hicks's and George Pentecost's foppish marquesses.
''The Misanthrope'' has been gorgeously costumed by Ann Roth, with lighting by Richard Nelson.