through July 30
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre:
36 Madison Ave., Madison
By GWEN OREL
When you think of Molière (1622-1673), you probably think of the comic writer’s enduring satires such as “The Miser” and “Tartuffe.” Molière, the stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, had the genius to take the structure of the roving troupe style commedia dell’arte, in which actors had “lines of business” — the ingenue, the foolish old man, a harlequin — and add rhyming lines and social satire.
But “The Bungler,” playing at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 30, lacks social bite. The 1655 play lacks the resonance of Molière’s later works. It’s all comic high jinks, and within the first five minutes you know it will end happily. There will even be a long-lost children reveal (Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t invent that trope).
Not much is really at stake, and at two and a half hours, the soufflé sinks.
“The Bungler” lacks nothing for wit and hammy actor opportunity, however, and Kevin Isola as sly servant Mascarille displays comic genius. He helps Lelie (Aaron McDaniel), the bungler of the title, win his beloved Celie (accented and sultry Sophia Blum), At times, Isola seems to channel Robin Williams.
Just as you may be thinking, “Is the whole play going to be like this?” Isola comes on and deadpans “yeah.” At one point he ad-libs, “honestly, I…”
Director Brian B. Crowe deserves some credit for that brilliant juxtaposition of styles, and for working so fluidly with Richard Wilbur’s elegant translation. Crowe has gone all in on commedia, as he did with the magical world of “Coriolanus” at Shakespeare Theatre a few years back.
The colorful set (by Dick Block) with slammable windows and doors has the safe, funny feel of a children’s illustration, or of a television set from the 1950s, and Paul Canada’s costumes are frothy, colorful and funny: exaggerated wigs, skirts that are mini in front, long in back. The wigs don’t quite fit, as befits a band of roving players.
Lute (it sounded like lute!) music for scene changes completes the mood. Crowe even adds bits of frenetic dumb show.
“The Bungler” has a very simple plot: Lelie wants to wed gypsy slave girl Celie (just go with it; slave culture in Sicily is never explained). His servant tries to help him out, and Lelie blows it.
Rinse and repeat.
Plots include a sham funeral for his father (who is very much alive) to get money, pretense at running a boarding house, a bungled theft of a wallet.
Mascarille grows increasingly frustrated — who wouldn’t? — as his clever pranks are undone.
How much you enjoy the play depends on your appreciation of the cast.
“Tartuffe” earns its belly laughs by our viewing his hypocrisy while others are taken in, and the joy in his eventual downfall. But poor Lelie comes across as pathetic, a whipped puppy who means well, and after a while laughing at his expense feels mean. He also comes across as foppish, which makes Celie’s preference for him over another eligible gentleman rather puzzling.
All of the cast are good, and they move beautifully too, as if they’ve all attended the same Period Style class.
But for this early Molière farce to work, it needs a company of comedians. Think “Saturday Night Live.”
Think “Second City.”
All the players need the comic brio that Isola has. They need to bounce off one another with such inspired silliness you forget the predictability of the plot. Shakespeare Theatre offers very fine actors, who are more than able to be funny as demanded, but who are actors first. That makes the seams visible.
There’s a reason “The Bungler” doesn’t get done very often: it’s not all that good, and to make it good, it needs performers who are great.
But even less-than-seamless Molière is hella funny, and better than most things around.
And Isola captivates whenever he is onstage. Fortunately, that’s most of the time.