The venerable Robert Brustein saddles up “Tartuffe” and rides it into Texas, circa 2015, in his would-be-outrageous new satire, “Exposed.” It’s a clever idea that not only skillfully appropriates the plot of Molière’s 1664 comedy but even includes dialogue written in rhyming couplets! But, really, with the venal political circus and exhibitions of false faith raging around us daily, who can be outraged? Or, for that matter, exposed?
Brustein’s bawdy political romp, in its world premiere courtesy of Boston Center for American Performance and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (at the Calderwood Pavilion through Dec. 18), replaces the religious hypocrite Tartuffe with a longhorn televangelist running for Congress. And Orgon, the pious dupe Tartuffe almost fleeces, becomes a corrupt Jewish Republican billionaire looking to become a kingmaker — and to get the Department of Justice off his back with regard to money laundering and some shady doings at casinos in Qatar.
The mogul, more suggestive of Vegas kingpin Sheldon Adelson than the Koch brothers, is called Seymour Sackeroff, and his gigantic Texas parlor is festooned with guns and hunting trophies. The telegenic Baptist is called Dick Cockburn — for reasons having more to do with his uncontrollable loins than his sanctimonious messaging. And yes, as in Molière’s comedy, the religious hypocrite not only almost tricks the right-wing one-percenter out of house, home and millions, he also engages in the activity of the title with most of the guy’s household.
As you may have guessed, this is hardly the subtlest of satires. And it’s certainly more clever than it is laugh-out-loud funny (the deafness jokes are particularly lame), even given an able cast led by Jeremiah Kissel in hunting gear and Michael Hammond dropping trou. There is a spectacularly amusing drop-in toward the end by Remo Airaldi in a role that takes the old Deus ex machina denouement to a logical extreme.
Interestingly, Airaldi’s casually omnipotent character gets to headline a song, suggesting that “Exposed” might have worked better as a musical than as a cross between political broadside and Richard Wilbur. Brustein, a frequent adapter as well as playwright, has collaborated with composer Hankus Netsky on a couple of shows, including “Shlemiel the First” and “The King of Second Avenue.” And “Exposed” was initially conceived as a musical and then rethought, with the song lyrics replaced by rhyming couplets á la Molière.
So here we are in a palatial if tasteless Texas living room (the opulent, animal-head-studded set is by Mary Sader) with the scheming Sackeroff, his snaky televangelist houseguest, and the billionaire’s clan when, over the breakfast buffet, Sackeroff and his chic octogenarian mom (a polished Annette Miller, proving that old cougars neither die nor fade away) start chatting in rhyme about everything from their company (“It’s true he’s a prince/ No hint of chintz”) to Starbucks corn muffins.
This is jarring, to say the least — perhaps because it is so stylized, whereas what’s going on in the play is not only fairly crude but not far removed from what’s up among the conniving rich and the Religious Right in our very own scoundrely times. Brustein, 88, may be mad as hell and determined not to take it any more, but he’s hard put to out-skewer reality.
As in “Tartuffe,” the rest of the Sackeroff family is less smitten than its patriarch and his matriarch with the sermonizing hypocrite in their midst. These naysayers include Sackeroff’s fourth (but first Jewish) trophy wife, Candy; his gay son, named for Ronald Reagan; and his nubile daughter, whom Sackeroff tries to tie up in a bow and push into matrimony with Cockburn, who, alas, can’t keep his pants on long enough to get to the altar — or even upstairs.
But since domestic tyranny isn’t what it was in the 17th century, Brustein’s Sackeroff is less a bullying sucker than was Molière’s Orgon, pimping his daughter and banishing his son. Sackeroff is as much out to use Cockburn as vice versa (why else do moneybags buy political candidates?), and he’s more frustrated than driven to fury by his uncooperative clan. Nonetheless, in Steven Bogart’s farcical staging, all hell eventually busts loose, with Cockburn unmasked (make that unzipped) and Sackeroff’s determinedly blind eye opened (“This is a man/ That I practically suckled/ He repays me/ By turning me/ Into a cuckold.”)
Okay, I have admired, even stood in awe of Robert Brustein for 40 years. His theatrical accomplishments are legion, from the founding of both Yale Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theater to the penning of 18 books, 12 adaptations, and eight plays, including a trilogy centered on Shakespeare. His haunting adaptation of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” built on the ART acting company, remains one of that theater’s landmark productions. But “Exposed,” even in this bold staging, is neither as funny nor as biting as it needs to be. Maybe that’s because the plot, albeit borrowed from a master satirist, sadly now seems about as realistic and heavy-handed as anything by Arthur Miller.
Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.