TARTUFFE, Humble Ambitions, at Cafe Voltaire. This "Bible Belt" Tartuffe relocates Moliere's still-scathing satire of religious hypocrisy in a fundamentalist household, where true believer Orgon is fleeced out of his home and hope by a holy-rolling, pulpit-pounding fraud. Humble Ambitions makes a shrewd but obvious choice: like scum from a pond, today's Tartuffes ooze from a religious right specializing in sanctimonious cant and blowhard bigotry. Tartuffe's lust for the flesh is not unlike Jimmy Swaggart's; his taste for filthy lucre instantly recalls Jim Bakker's.
Dippy and likable, Stephen Rader's staging teems with types: prickly Mademoiselle Pernelle resembles the SNL Church Lady, Orgon's impetuous son is a flaky punker, and the maid Dorine, from Brooklyn, resembles the "Coffee Talk" hostess. So it's not the concept, or even the fact that this 100-minute version is much abridged, that dampens Moliere's fireworks. It's the production's skittish pacing, its erratic comic timing, most flagrant in M.J. Bartholomew's falsely blustering Orgon. This gull lacks the size to seem worth mockery or pity, and Bartholomew ends up digging a comic black hole that sucks energy from the peppier performances. Similarly one-dimensional in the title role is Darius Stone: he registers venality but fails to reveal the duplicity that makes Tartuffe such a supple trickster.
More targeted are Dawn-Marie Fletcher as starchy Pernelle, Tina Howard as a dignified victim of Tartuffe's sexual harassment, and Matthew Maher as Orgon's bumbling philosopher brother. The one new comic creation is a female bailiff to evict Orgon; in a deft, deliciously deadpan cameo, Michelle Giovanni turns the character into an oily corporate executioner. Her success confirms the play's comic currency--and the opportunities wasted in a too-tentative revival.