Molière’s Don Juan is an amiable little comedy, a recklessly blasphemous sendup of religious faith and other hypocrisies, with the title character (Justin Adams) abandoning all calls for decency and kindness in favor of a monomaniacal pursuit of sexual gratification. And he really does seem sincere every time, worshipping each successive woman and then quickly abandoning her once a new one appears. Though Don Juan is inevitably damned to hell, there is no sense of tragedy, of failed opportunities for redemption: all is jolly until it is not, and the only thing Don Juan can do is enjoy the jolliness (and ignore the sadness he reaps) for as long as possible. Compared to his servant Sganarelle (Brad Heberlee), who engages in a great deal of pseudo-Christian hand-wringing, or indeed to any other character in the play, the short life of this libertine seems positively delightful.
But a new translation by Jess Burkle, which is currently being produced at the Pearl, inexplicably engages in a kind of alliteration mania: Don Juan asks Sganarelle if he knows what is “behind this bewildering business” of his abandoning Donne Elvire (Jolly Abraham), who has “been vanished from my vision by a new vixen.” Elvire, in turn, asks Don Juan if he would “please parse these pleasant platitudes.” When it becomes clear she cannot persuade him to return to her, she warns her illegitimate husband, “Don’t expect me to erupt in venom and vitriol; no, no, this fire shall not smolder in vein vocabulary—all its heat shall be in its vengeance.” Meanwhile, the supporting cast of peasants speak in an Italian accent so atrocious it is almost hostile, somewhere between Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Nintendo’s Mario. An actual line from the script reads: “Booboo, they-uh would-uh sank like-uh stones-uh, ’cause-uh they-uh didn’t-uh know how-uh to swim the two-uh them-uh.”
The result is a little like children’s theater—indeed, there is much winking and nudging with the audience—and the language becomes a jackhammer, an assault of sounds that make little sense when they are so aggressively propped up by literary device; this is the poetic equivalent of a movie consisting entirely of explosions. The Pearl used to be the most reliable classical theater company in New York, but since the exit of artistic director J.R. Sullivan, they have made a series of awkward artistic decisions, mostly in the direction of dumbing down their material. I hope next season will see an out with the new and in with the old.
Don Juan runs through June 7th at the Pearl Theatre. 555 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission.