HARTFORD -- Until Hartford Stage's world premiere of ''The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue," you might never have found Moliere and the Jazz Age sharing a stage together. But roll over Cole Porter and tell Fred Astaire the news: Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, a.k.a. Moliere, can cut a pretty mean rug.
David Grimm's sharp updating of Moliere's ''The Learned Ladies" takes us from a Parisian grand salon to an opulent New York apartment done up in gorgeous Art Deco black-and-white by set designer Tony Straiges.
The rich women of the house -- the mother, her two daughters, and her sister-in-law -- all have too little to do, and, except for down-to-earth Betty, the youngest daughter, they try to better themselves by debating philosophy, poetry, and art. For the two older women, it's all pretension. ''Mr. Steinbeck" is a favorite, though if they ever came across an Okie they'd call the police in a flash. For intellectual older sister Ramona, such pursuits replace the life of the heart. And they have their very own house poet, Upton Gabbitt, who means to marry Betty and spend all the family's money as the women swoon over his silly couplets.
Speaking of couplets, Grimm has dared to convert Moliere's rhymes to his own modern ones. This is how Dicky Mayhew -- the play's unpretentious good guy and the man Betty's really in love with -- tells her he's going to ask her parents for her hand: '' 'Course I'll talk to them, pal. I'll do all that it takes / To have you as my bride. Hell, I'd even charm snakes!"
That's typical of Grimm's style, at once clever and groan-inducing. But as the characters and plot become established and the ear gets used to the rhythm of the verse, the play establishes a pleasant momentum with far more chuckles than groans.
Much of the reason for its success lies with Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson, who has assembled a brilliant ensemble of actors and designers. Standouts include Tom Bloom as Henry, the henpecked patriarch and boss at Crystal's Canned Beans; Annalee Jefferies as his regal wife, Phyllis; Pamela Payton-Wright as his flighty sister; and the delightful daughters, Nicole Lowrance as Betty and Nancy Bell as Ramona. Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz makes everyone look like a million bucks.
Wilson also deserves praise for not letting Grimm's adaptation become a merely clever exercise in rhyming and turning 1672 concerns into those of 1936.
There is a larger issue, though. Moliere was writing of the pretensions of his day, and risking the wrath of both audiences and authorities in doing so. By setting the play in the 20th century instead of the 21st, Grimm isn't risking anything. That these learned ladies don't see any contradiction between liking Steinbeck and Hitler isn't going to bother anybody. At least if the play were poking fun at contemporary targets it would have the bite of the original.
Perhaps Grimm thought he needed to set his adaptation in a prefeminist time, as Moliere's play is quite patriarchal, despite the henpecking. Since he's taken so many poetic liberties, though, why not end it on a less ''honor thy father" note? Moliere's not going to object.
If crowd-pleaser it must be, at least it's a very good one. ''The Learned Ladies" says that people need to dance as well as think. ''The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue" makes you want to join in on the dance.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.