We all form certain thoughts — but not conclusions, really! — before attending a play. For me, the nagging concern about Mauckingbird Theatre Company's inaugural production was director Peter Reynolds' all-male cast: Would setting Molière's The Misanthrope "when gay men rule" serve the play, or would it be compromised to support a gimmick?
Quality, fortunately, wins the day. Evan Jonigkeit brings cool, slinky style to Celimene, the "gossipy coquette" who drives misanthropic Alceste to fits; Keith Conallen makes a deliciously nasty Arsinoe, slyly vying with Celimene for both social standing and Alceste; and Patrick Joyce gives ingenue Eliante appropriate dignity as well as innocence. Not just great roles for women, these are great roles.
As is Alceste, though Dito van Reigersberg sometimes plays more peeved than principled, waving his arms and whining in protest when cooler heads like wise friend Philinte (Bradley Wrenn) advise him to restrain his excessive sincerity. "If it's a nauseating game," Philinte says of the social niceties Alceste abhors, "one has to play it all the same." That means pretending that poetry by Oronte (Brian Cowden, in white makeup and red faux-'hawk) isn't awful, or that luridly costumed gossip girls Clitandre (Josh L. Hitchens) and Acaste (Jerrell Henderson) aren't hypocritical harpies — an impossible task for Alceste, who asserts that "men should act like men."
Marie Anne Chiment's brilliant costumes bridge contemporary style and 300-year-old French court, and Meghan Jones' elegant set wisely doesn't compete. Only Jonigkeit's sound design stumbles, framing scenes in generic club music; one hopes that these sophisticated men would have better taste.
Reynolds' delightful reimagining (requiring just a few pronoun changes in Ranjit Bolt's modern translation, which makes Moliere's rhyming couplets flow naturally) doesn't propose a world without women: When Celimene defends a love letter by claiming it was written to a woman, her accusers' derisive sneers fit perfectly. In this world, no bothersome baggage surrounding gay love and marriage intrudes, allowing the characters to emerge as the human beings Molière conceived centuries ago. Without a word uttered about gay rights, this production defends them eloquently.
Through Feb. 2Mauckingbird Theatre CompanySecond Stage at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. 215-563-4330, mauckingbirdtheatreco.org