Charles Newell's conception for his new Court Theatre production of Moliere's "Tartuffe" took some guts. The deluded family at the heart of this famous 17th century French comedy has been cast as an affluent, African-American household that lives in Kenwood, the South Side neighborhood now famous for being the home of President Barack Obama and his wife and daughters. We watch Orgon, the otherwise upstanding patriarch of this group played by the great A.C. Smith, being taken in blindly by the title character, a Caucasian religious hypocrite, even though the slime ball actually is trying to seduce Orgon's brilliant wife after having already persuaded him to hand over his daughter for an early marriage.
Interesting potential resonances there, huh?
Newell has argued that Moliere is not taken seriously enough in most productions. And unlike his disappointing recent version of "The Misanthrope" — the just-completed first part of Court's 2013 Moliere repertory with a shared cast — Newell's much more enjoyable, if still uneven, "Tartuffe" does indeed deepen the play's consequences and add in notes of sticky ambivalence that deepen one's experience and sharpen Moliere's social observations. This is mostly due to the actors forging some remarkable scenes, beginning with anything including the knockout Elizabeth Ledo's bewigged Dorine, here a housekeeper of tart tongue and Eastern European extraction who has one foot in the famous comic world of truth-telling maids and, more crucially, another in the world of exactly the kinds of characters who run Chicago's present-day affluent households.
Tartuffe himself can be tricky to translate to a modern era, and the loquaciously oily Evangelist can easily descend into cliche. Philip Earl Johnson, though, offers up a hippyish persona who, until trapped and ready to bite, appears so relaxed in that California, cultish, spry-hipster way, you can see why he has made such inroads into this cautious Midwestern family. At once sad and funny, Smith is careful enough to present an Orgon both assertive and insecure. Crucially, you see the crack through which Tartuffe and his flunky valet (played by Erik Hellman, who looks like he is on loan from "The Book of Mormon") are able to squirm.
The best moment of the night involves the famous sexual seduction scene, among the most difficult to play in any classical comedy. Here's the set-up: Sick of being pawed by Tartuffe, Orgon's wife, Elmire, sets a trap. As played by the fired-up Patrese D. McClain, Elmire leads on the sexual aggressor — quite a long way down the road — with her proof-needing husband hiding under the table. Moliere's main original joke is that it takes a long time for the shell-shocked hubby to emerge. That sexist gag doesn't play easily today, given that Tartuffe's gropings are so offensive and Elmire's distress so evident. What woman wants some sleaze bag's hands on her body, just to prove a point to her dumb husband?
Newell and his actors don't shy from the problems now inherent in the scene and from showing us that the permanently damaged Elmire won't quickly (if ever) forgive her husband. She's so mad, and Tartuffe so odious, the scene is at once moving, aggravating and hilariously funny, which is, I think, the highly desirable triple that Newell was trying to achieve throughout both of these productions. He achieves that beautifully here, thanks in no small part to Johnson and McClain's willingness to go to the physical and emotional edge. It's by far the best I've ever seen that scene performed, and thus a reminder of what this director can achieve. But at other times, Newell shoots himself in the foot by trying to combine these carefully wrought truths with silly, pretentious, flailing frippery in which we just cannot believe.
Why have Allen Gilmore play Orgon's mother in drag, as if he had suddenly left Kenmore for some Lady Bracknell-ish British pantomime? It's a terrible idea. So are some of Jacqueline Firkins' over-the-top costume choices here, which stick Grace Gealey, who gamely plays daughter Mariane, in some frilly baby-doll dress in which no affluent young woman in Kenwood would ever be seen dead. All that does is make the Kenmore setting, re-created by scenic designer John Culbert with a mix of solid logic (which works) and faux-Afro-Moliere landscaping (which does not), feel insecure. Other costume choices for Damis (played by Dominique Worsley), and for Travis Turner's Valere, are similarly ridiculous, and some of the broader scenes are squashed by the same ill-defined, high-style absurdity that torpedoed "The Misanthorpe." I don't doubt the designers were following a high-style direction (one drawn in part from the faux-Baroque elements that recording artists like Beyonce have embraced), but, alas for all, it is a fundamentally flawed conceit that tries to combine opposites and works against Newell's fundamental aim, which is to show the pain behind the laughs.
But "Tartuffe" is not only the more rooted and translatable of Court's Moliere plays, and it has a more determined and relentless McClain, Smith and Ledo firing on all cylinders, cutting through the stylistic clutter like a Salvation Army van cleaning up after a party in which everyone disrobed.
When: Through July 14
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org