Review: Don Juan by the Pearl Theatre Company, NYC

Who among us has never known a Don Juan, a silver-tongued lothario who seems to get away with everything? A man who truly believes that the only duty he has is to his own happiness, or at least his own desires. He may flout every rule and disregard every scruple, but he will do it with charm–as long as it suits him, anyway.

Jess Burkle’s new adaptation of Molière’s Don Juan opens with our eponymous anti-hero, played by a suave Justin Adams, on the run from our heroine, Donna Elvire, given a fiery grace by Jolly Abraham. She was plucked from her convent by Don Juan, who follows this up by killing her father over his protestations for this unseemly conduct. We see Donna Elvira’s love for him turn to contempt and then to pity as he repudiates her true devotion to him.

Donne Elvire is only the latest in a long line of conquests for Don Juan, who makes a habit of traipsing around Europe leaving the broken hearts of his former wives in his wake. It’s rather sweet that he actually takes the time to marry each of these women before having his wicked way with them. But, like so many among us, Don Juan really prefers the chase, and as soon as he has consummated his genuine true love, he finds that there is “nothing left to say” and moves on to the next lovely face. Adams gets some witty sophistical monologues in which to expound upon Don Juan’s rationalization for his behavior. His right-minded yet wrong-footed servant Sganarelle (Brad Heberlee) tries vainly to keep Don Juan on the straight and narrow, though he can’t articulate why: Sganarelle’s obsequious good-heartedness is only outweighed by his thick-headedness.

Like every morality play, Burkle’s adaptation ends with the bad guy getting his comeuppance. Through a series of wacky hijinks, Don Juan has many chances to repent and make his way back to the narrow path of righteousness. It will not come as a surprise to find that he spurns all of these and continues his rakish libertinism. The manner of his eventual downfall involves a very angry talking statue. Donne Elvira’s father cursed Don Juan with his dying breath and his statue comes to life to carry out his very particular revenge.

Jolly Abraham also has a good turn as Donne Elvire’s swashbuckling, hair-tossing brother Don Alonse, out for revenge against Don Juan’s soiling of the family name with sibling Don Carlos (Pete McElligot). McElligot’s bro-style disillusionment with the nobleman’s code of honor which demands righteousness through vengeance is my favorite part of the play, both for its humor and its depth. As he points out in strident jaded tones, even if he does manage to catch and kill the guy who wronged his family name, it won’t undo any of the stuff that already happened anyway, so what is the point? Being a nobleman sucks. The tomb and banquet scenes featuring Chris Mixon as the creepy statue (and the debt collector Mr Sabbath, and Don Louis, Don Juan’s father), are also full of vigor.

Harry Feiner’s superb scenic design centers around a large baroque painted round thing which alternately represents an ornate cupola with a skylight, the entrance to Hell, and the region of a woman’s anatomy in which Don Juan is most interested. Anya Klepikov’s costuming for the statue was particularly impressive.

Burkle’s adaptation isn’t subtle: from Don Juan’s oversize golden codpiece to the outlandish accents of peasants Pierrot (Pete McElligot) and Charlotte (Isabella Curti), everything about this play has a cartoonish quality. At times this stylized lampoonery works quite well but at others it feels wooden and contrived, particularly during the first act. There are interludes that could use tightening up to keep the play light on its feet. Part of this is staging: long transitions between a couple of scenes drag the momentum down.

By contrast the final climactic scene feels out of tempo, with Sganarelle distraught, then buffoonish, then distraught again following his master’s sudden encounter with consequences. There is not enough of a denouement with the remainder of the characters that Don Juan wronged for his sudden demise to feel fully satisfying. Part of the point of a morality play is to see the effect of the moral on others, not just on the villain. Reaction is a key component. But Molière’s purpose was not a simple reflection of commonly accepted social mores, and Sganarelle’s finds his own true meaning of the play at the end (“I never got paid!”). This genuinely reflects the pragmatic way that we all view life through our own particular needs regardless of what wild, fantastical things happen around us.

All in all, an enjoyable contemporary nod to a classic.