Richard McMillan (left) and Rick Roberts get the last laugh in Molière.
MOLIÈRE by Sabina Berman (Tarragon, 30 Bridgman). To December 28. See Continuing. Rating: NNNN
Molière, Sabina Berman's lesson in 17th-century theatre history, is anything but dull. In fact, it's hard not to laugh much of the time, especially in the Tarragon's fine production.
Setting up a rivalry between comic playwright Molière and tragic playwright Racine, Berman begins with the personalities but expands her canvas to include ruminations on art, politics and love.
Director Richard Rose smoothly handles the many scenes and large cast of characters that includes Molière's theatre company and family and the court of the impetuous Louis XIV (Kyle Horton), all gorgeously costumed by designer Charlotte Dean. Dean's set features a series of theatrical curtains that let us see onstage and backstage as well as an orchestra pit where composer Lully (music director Mike Ross) plays the harpsichord.
Maybe the details aren't historically accurate, but that's not the point of the tale, which sets up a fine opposition of personalities: the tense Racine, looking for the grandeur of life and inclined to bodily tics, versus the fun-loving Molière, whose Rabelaisian zest for life is both sensual and intellectual.
While at the play's start Molière is the younger man's mentor, a bet suggested by the devious Archbishop Préfixe (played with scheming energy by Julian Richings) drives a firm wedge between the writers.
In Shelley Tepperman's translation, the writing is always clever; real-life scenes blend into scenes from Molière's comedies, and the more serious second half lets us into the complexities of Racine's success in the battle.
There's no weak link in the ensemble, and the two central figures are beautifully matched. As Racine, through whose eyes we see the action, Rick Roberts moves from wide-eyed country boy to jaded, unhappy courtier, while Richard McMillan's ever-joking Molière is an energetic bundle of laughs and desires.
No surprise, maybe, that it's the comedy - low, high, physical, even ironic - that wins the debate Berman poses. The words "s'il vous plaît" ("if it pleases you") are a key phrase in the play. And this production of Molière pleases us a lot.