Photo by Craig Schwartz

The program to The Molière Comedies, a pair of the Frenchman’s one-acts, now at the Taper, contains a telling discussion between Brian Bedford, the director and lead performer of both plays, and Gordon Davidson, the theater’s artistic director and producer, who hired Bedford. Davidson speaks at length about repertory companies and his failed attempts in the mid-’80s to create one at the Mark Taper Forum — a pairing up of plays every spring with a single company jumping roles from play to play. Says Davidson, “There were a lot of actors with classical training here making a living in TV, but to get them to give up a season of television to do a season of plays, I thought that would be impossible. And it was!”

Davidson was, in fact, trying to revive an expiring dinosaur. The idea of repertory comes from Britain, which, pre-Thatcher, boasted a government-funded network of such companies spread across the land and serving both as a way to get the classics into every burg and hamlet, and also as the world’s most fertile theatrical training ground. Under such a system, actors could not only refine elements of style but immerse themselves in theater etiquette — the unspoken courtesies necessary to survive under the pressure of mounting, say, three Shakespeare plays and one by Ben Jonson, all in four weeks, with a company of 15 covering every role. Putting on a season became a test of skill and tenacity that held many of the same terrors as working in a hospital E.R: The stakes may not have been life and death, but they felt that way.

This is the system that hoisted the Union Jack over the flagship of world theater, the same system that gave us John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Judi Dench and, of course, Brian Bedford. It never took hold here, thanks to many of the same attitudes, antipathies and financial priorities that finally expunged the system from Britain as well. If you go there, you can still hear the keening of regret, from Glasgow to Sussex, over the loss of that system. Here, you can experience the effects of its absence on stage at the Mark Taper Forum.

There are two problems that may be related: chemistry and interpretation. The C word refers to one of those foggy theater-craft concepts that lacks precision of meaning yet serves as a replacement for an actual idea. Here, then, is an attempt at a concrete definition: “Good chemistry” is the quality of interaction between actors, manifested in glances, in cadences and in body language — the accrued, unwritten codes of familiarity that come from working together for years. This quality you will not find among the shared cast of The Molière Comedies. In its place, you will find two extremely appealing, ever-so-relaxed central performances by Bedford, who plays, in each role, a deliciously deluded husband and patriarch with hang-dog eyes and a mellifluous, deep baritone that spits out Richard Wilbur’s lovely verse translations with undertones of sarcasm, and all the smug confidence of a professor oblivious to a slimy scrap of spinach lodged between his teeth. You’ll also find the robust perkiness of petite Anna Belknap, and the mischievous glint in her eye. In School for Husbands, she plays the young ward who dupes Bedford time and again in the attempt to avoid marrying him; in The Imaginary Cuckold, a slightly impertinent servant.

And yet, while the company of obviously skilled actors strikes a few sparks, it never generates enough current to produce a soft light of confidence between cast and audience. What we’re offered, instead, is prettification: 17th-century wigs and bows, lace collars and pantaloons (Jane Greenwood, costumes; Carol F. Doran, hair and wig design), and Ming Cho Lee’s open set of house fronts or painted Renaissance-style backdrops. These seem a thin veneer for a hodgepodge of theatrical moments, some bursting with droll wit, others constrained by the pretense and artifice of a stylization which, in the atmosphere of a true classical rep situation, might have emerged as “chemistry.”

This combination of elements seeps into Bedford’s interpretation of the plays, and of their conjunction. Both comedies are superficially about relations between men and women, about how — in order to compensate for the mercenary and cultural imperiousness of already deluded men — women must resort to guile and delude them even further. The Imaginary Cuckold follows the misunderstandings and jealousies that ensue from a dropped locket; and its plot, very much in the tradition of French farce, starts from a faulty premise then tracks the emergence of chaos along a trajectory of pristine logic. School for Husbands fleshes out farce into satire by first establishing the opposition of two aged brothers (Bedford and Ned Schmidtke), one a Puritan, the other a liberal. Each has a ward, one reared on Spartan obedience (Belknap), the other (Katie MacNichol) on respect, trust and the self-respect that derives from both. The Puritan insists his ward wed him; the liberal places the decision in her hands. Which old boy gets girl?

School for Husbands is, and always was, about more than romance, more than a story of silly men and their domestic pursuits. The idea of its competition between the liberal and the zealot extends to silly men and the consequences of the way they use their power, with resonances floating all the way out into international relations.

In 1996, Beth Milles staged Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, also a comedy about duplicity and deception, with the Actors’ Gang. Whiteface makeup was smeared, costumes were smudged, saliva sprayed from the actors mouths. The production delivered a grunginess and urgency that reflected the agony of Molière’s real-life circumstances while, at the same time, lifting the play out of the 17th century. (And again, these were actors who had worked together as a company for years.) When, that same year, Steven Wadsworth staged Marivaux’s Changes of Heart at the Taper — also a French comedy apparently about trifling with love, but actually about much more — he allowed into the witticisms a laconic tone, a wistful ennui that allowed the production to be as expansive as it was whimsical. To open Cuckold, Bedford has his company dance across the stage in a daisy chain, as though the evening were a frolic and little more. As it turns out, that’s exactly what it is.

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