If director/adaptor Joseph Haj was attempting to deliberately downplay Cyrano de Bergerac‘s more fantastical elements in order to make the title character more approachable, more life-sized to contemporary audiences, he has succeeded.

That is the triumph–and the trouble–with this new take on the famous 19th-century drama.

Clearly, artists have the right to reimagine the classics, to try to make their interpretive mark upon the immortals. When they do, we root for them to find new insights in familiar text, and new connections to our times. But judging by this production, even a somewhat downsized Cyrano is a dubious achievement. Granted, Haj’s script excises some of the bluster from Rostand’s sometimes windy text. In the process it also lets the air out of a number of major characters, and effectively pumps much of the heat out of their passions. In short, we have an intellectual triumph and an emotional eclipse simultaneously. It’s Romance viewed from the Age of Reason; perhaps with its ethics intact, but without–you know–all those big and messy feelings. The result is a work that can no longer be mistaken for what Ayn Rand–and others–have termed the greatest drama ever written.

That’s why Ray Dooley remains strangely muted here as the title character, while his would-be counterpart, Kate Gleason’s Roxane, comes off more as an unforgiving schoolmarm than the face of a Grand Obsession. Perhaps Rostand’s work critiques Roxane’s narrow views on love, with its insistence on over-verbalized emotion. Still, a lack of chemistry between Gleason’s character and lovers–false and true–on stage ultimately renders her Roxane little more than an irritant.

Our conditions are unintentionally identified in mid-play, when a character interrupts conventional dialogue with a jarringly modern one-liner: “Not quite following the whole ‘heart thing’.” That much, at least, is apparent.

Once only does our playwright truly bow to the seduction of pure language, in the nighttime dialogue between a hidden Cyrano and Roxane outside her house. Dooley’s monologue, “Know you what such a moment holds for me,” is a moment of pure, moonlit magic. For a sublime, extended moment, Roxane–and the rest of us–are caught up in it. Then cooler heads, again, prevail.

When Haj minimizes any possibility of Cyrano mistaking Roxane’s secret lover for himself, he deliberately downplays emotions again–and drama at the same time. No real hazard accompanies Christian’s first goading of his future benefactor.

We must salute McKay Coble’s achievements in scenic design: the symbolic scattering red leaves at the end of Act 2 (tastefully accompanied by M. Anthony Reimer’s ambient soundscape), and the cunningly crafted, oversized antique chest of drawers from which the play unfolds at the beginning of Act 1.

At the same time, we wish the artisan who attempted to restore a similarly ancient script at Playmakers had exercised a bit more restraint before he stripped its surface to the extent we see here. True, the relatively glossless finish suggests IKEA and certain contemporary tastes. But we can no longer see what we saw of ourselves–or our ideals–in what once was a much glossier finish. (Through May 7.)

While we’re speaking of Playmakers, here’s a late newsflash: The company has decided to incorporate the viewing public into the selection process for their new artistic director. The first candidate met the public in a frank–and fruitful–Q&A session last Sunday afternoon in at UNC’s Department of Dramatic Art. The second and third public sessions will also happen there this week and next, on Monday, May 1 and Tuesday, May 9, at 6 p.m. Call 962-1122 for details.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.