Classical comedy can seem the easiest and most inviting thing to slap onto a stage. A peruke, a bodice, a pratfall, an ogle . . . et voilà! Instant tradition. But in fact success there is almost the rarest of theatrical accomplishments. Take Molière. Eric Bentley once remarked, in reviewing a Comédie Française performance of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, that Molière “is fully accessible only in performance, and only in excellent performance at that.” Recent New York productions of Tartuffe and The Miser by organizations other, alas, than the Comédie Françcaise prompt a still sterner verdict. Molière, it is regrettably clear, is accessible at all only in excellent performance.

The Miser centers on Harpagon, a man in his sixties who obsessedly blocks life in two major ways—first, by stingy housekeeping and...

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