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I Love Money

Moliere's money grubber offers a fun romp

Rodney Bonds (left) and Frank Vince pinch pennies.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 1/27/2010

The Miser

By Moliere

Through Feb. 14 at Fells Point Corner Theatre

The Fells Point Corner Theatre's production of Moliere's The Miser is set in Depression-era New York City, with nary a bosom-boosting corset or powdered wig. It's a choice that may disappoint purists--at least those with a fetish for men in tights--but the classic comedy of manners doesn't suffer from the relocation. The production is a fast-paced, often hilarious spoof on money, family, and greed, and the plot and dialogue remain mostly faithful to the 17th-century original.

Harpagon (Rodney Bonds), the miser of the title, is a rich widower who values money above all else. He has two grown children, elese (Lindsey Nixon) and Cleante (Alexander Scally), and a house full of servants. The play opens as each of his children have fallen in love: Elese with the butler Valere (Graham Pilato), and Cleante with a new girl in the neighborhood named Mariane (Megan Therese Rippey). Now, they must convince their penny-pinching father--such a Scrooge that he sold the tires off his own car--to let them marry their impoverished lovers.

However, it turns out that Harpagon is also in love with Mariane. He has arranged for Cleante to marry a rich widow, and for Elese to marry a certain Signor Anselmos (Daniel Douek), a wealthy man who is "barely 60." Elese and Cleante's efforts to avoid these marriages lead to a flurry of pratfalls and misunderstandings, culminating in the theft of Harpagon's beloved cashbox full of gold coins. The story ends with a series of implausible revelations and all ends well, in a certain cynical fashion.

Veteran director Barry Feinstein set The Miser in the 1930s because he hoped the audience would see the relevance of the play's themes--affluence, economic disparity, and greed--to our own time. (He might have set it in 2010, for that matter, if social mores around class and gender hadn't shifted so greatly in the last century that the script would no longer make sense.) But the production is so tongue-in-cheek--with every soliloquy accompanied by an exaggerated wink or a comically raised eyebrow--that it does not lead one to ponder much. In fact, the audience often feels like part of the show, as the actors pause in the middle of the action to editorialize or offer up a dash of sexual innuendo. The production's sense of comic timing owes as much to Fawlty Towers and The Three Stooges as to Moli?re.

While the acting is generally quite good, several minor characters nearly steal the show. Richard Peck's Mr. Jack is both chauffeur and chef--more evidence of Harpagon's miserliness--and quickly changes from chef hat and apron to leather gloves and car coat depending on which servant Harpagon wishes to address. As chef, he takes on a mock French accent and a snotty mince, punctuated by moustache twitches. As chauffeur, he goes for a vaguely Southern voice and a more macho demeanor. Frank Vince is also delightful as Fleche, Cleante's valet. He is more jester than servant, poking his head into scenes he isn't part of, pulling sandwiches out of his voluminous pants, and mocking Harpagon with a long elastic face reminiscent of John Turturro. But it is Bonds as Harpagon who audiences are likely to remember most. Bonds alternates between jowl-shaking rage and preening vanity, constantly adjusting a portrait of himself--a good likeness, by set designer Darla Luke--that hangs on the wall. Following the revelation that his cashbox has been stolen, Bonds, clearly delighting in the opportunity to ad-lib, rushes out into the audience to find the culprit. He climbs over people in their seats, bangs on the window where the lighting crew sits, and generally wreaks hilarious havoc.

The show is not entirely pitch-perfect. Other than Harpagon's portrait, the set is fairly blah and the painted view out the window suspiciously pastoral for New York City. And Michael Keating, who plays both a police sergeant and a broker, enters like a car alarm in the middle of a symphony. Though a minor character, his flat performances are painfully jarring, his "New York" accent too heavy on that Bawlmer "O." Douek's accent as Signor Anselmos, meant to be Italian, is also unconvincing--an odd collision of Desi Arnaz and Barney Fife, as one attendee put it.

But such quibbles aside, The Miser is a light-hearted, funny show put on by a cast and crew clearly having a good time of it. And if it leads the occasional viewer to reflect on humanity's long history of avarice, so much the better.

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