When you get right down to it, an awful lot of a con man’s success depends on the willingness, even eagerness, of his marks to be deceived.
Donald Trump has always understood that. Of all the boasts Trump made during his presidential campaign, perhaps the most revealing — about him and how he perceived his followers — was this still-astounding-but-hard-to-refute statement, from January 2016: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.’’ Now, there’s a man who knows his base.
A similar obliviousness to a huckster’s transparent machinations is at work in the lively Huntington Theatre Company production of Moliere’s “Tartuffe.’’ Religious hypocrisy in the 17th century was the French playwright’s inspiration and target, but it’s pretty clear that Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois, who’s at the helm of this “Tartuffe,’’ wants us to keep our own era’s politics in mind, even without overt references in the translation by Ranjit Bolt.
Tartuffe himself is more talked about than seen for much of Act One at the Huntington, but Brett Gelman, who plays the title character, proves worth the wait. Gelman delivers a performance of comic dexterity that’s a treat to watch. The actor even flavors the rascality of his wine-swilling, tambourine-shaking Tartuffe with a trace of Mike Pence’s smarmy piety.
But Frank Wood is a disappointment in the crucial role of Orgon, Tartuffe’s wealthy and clueless dupe. There’s just not enough spark or color or personality in his portrayal. Wood’s impressive track record gives reason to think he’ll figure it out over the course of the show’s run (among other things, he won a Tony Award in the late 1990s for “Side Man’’), but at present his stiff performance keeps Orgon from coming fully to life and creates an imbalance in the production.
Tartuffe lusts after Orgon’s second wife, Elmire (Melissa Miller, very good), and is manipulating Orgon in a bid to marry his daughter, Mariane (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), and thereby gain control over the family’s fortune. Apart from Orgon’s mother (a juicily entertaining Paula Plum in an upswept hairdo), most other members of Orgon’s household see Tartuffe for the greedy charlatan he is. Trying to remove the blinders from Orgon’s eyes are not just his wife and daughter but also Orgon’s son, Damis (Matthew Bretschneider); Elmire’s brother, Cleante (Matthew J. Harris, recently seen in “Topdog/Underdog’’ at the Huntington); and the family’s caustic maid, Dorine (Jane Pfitsch).
After Orgon remains stubbornly oblivious to Tartuffe’s obvious mendacity, Elmire sets in motion a scheme to let her husband catch Tartuffe and her in flagrante delicto. There’s a further twist that lies in store for all.
Moliere’s work hasn’t been produced much in the Boston area in recent years. In 2015 the Boston Center for American Performance and the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre presented Robert Brustein’s “Exposed,’’ a contemporary retelling of “Tartuffe’’ that took aim at televangelists and billionaire political kingmakers like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers.
The Huntington’s decision to similarly transpose Moliere’s comedy to the present day — complete with cellphones, roller skates, and a selfie stick — doesn’t always work to the advantage of this “Tartuffe.’’
It’s not fatal by any means, but the anachronisms deliver an occasional ping to the consciousness as the action unfolds in a handsome penthouse, all creamy color and gilt accents, designed by Alexander Dodge. The characters speak in rhyming couplets (as in the original); Orgon possesses the patriarchal power to tell his thoroughly modern daughter, who is engaged to Valere (Gabriel Brown), that she must marry Tartuffe; the religious fraud refers to his “hairshirt” and later threatens Orgon by saying that “A tumbril and a cell await’’; and a bailiff (Steven Barkhimer) delivers a lengthy encomium to the wisdom and forbearance of the king, which was apparently a self-protecting gambit by Moliere but has an odd ring in this setting.
This is where DuBois’s gifts as a director make a difference. His production of “Tartuffe’’ is fluid and stylish enough to largely transport you past its incongruities while underscoring the larger link between the 17th century and today: humanity’s near-bottomless capacity for self-delusion.
Play by Moliere. Translated by Ranjit Bolt. Directed by Peter DuBois. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through Dec. 10. Tickets: From $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin