France's foremost comedic playwright, Molière is known for skewering his countrymen's pretensions and human failings. Although he lived and wrote in the seventeenth century, the universality of his work is a boon to modern theater producers, directors and audiences, resulting in uproarious laughter, juicy roles for actors and box office success.
Indeed, we here in the Garden State are not immune to Molière's charms. In 2011 the Madison-based Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey mounted a dazzling production of The Misanthrope followed this summer by an uproarious version of The Learned Ladies performed outdoors.
Now it is Two River Theater's turn to wow us, this time with The School for Wives, a very funny exposé of a middle-aged bachelor's attempts to train the "perfect" wife—in this case, his innocent ward half his age—who will do nothing else but "say her prayers, love him, spin and sew," and who, above all, will not make him a cuckold by cheating on him. Of course, such an absurd scheme is bound to come to a bad end, and as the debacle plays out before us, much merriment ensues. (Left, Phillipa Soo as Agnès and Robert Stanton as Arnolphe)
Director Mark Wing-Davey has transferred the play's original time and Paris setting to a late 1950s-early 60s French village with allusions to Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave cinema and Italy's tradition of commedia dell'arte physical comedy and stock characters of the 1500s. The result: a polished, beautifully designed, masterfully performed production worthy of the old Frenchman himself!
From the play's opening moments when we hear Chrysalde (played with dapper charm by Billy Eugene Jones) chide his friend Arnolphe (Robert Stanton) for his very vocal scorn for husbands whose wives cuckold them, we know that Arnolphe will be taken down a peg (or 10) and the fall will be hard—and delicious.
Stanton's Arnolphe (originally played by Molière himself) is the embodiment of officiousness, no more so than when he delineates his idea of the perfect wife: a docile, obedient, even stupid, woman whom he, the all-powerful, supreme husband, can mold like a bit of wax into the perfect, ever-faithful spouse. Stanton's fluid facial expressions and elastic body English make him a delightful deluded buffoon at whom we can laugh, but he manages to invest what could have been a stock character with some semblance of sympathy. That he gets heisted on his own petard makes his comeuppance all the more hilarious.
The object of his attention is his ward Agnès (supposedly played by Molière's much-younger wife), whom he has known since she was four years old, when he took her from her poverty-stricken mother to raise her. Phillipa Soo is perfection as the ignorant (although not simple-minded) young woman, so ingenuous that she openly scratches her crotch in public to relieve itching from fleas! Dressed like a little girl and wide-eyed, Soo's delightful depiction of a young woman suddenly hit by Cupid's arrow is a joy, and we find ourselves rooting for her as she comes to realize how disgracefully her guardian has treated her. The object of her affection, Horace, is portrayed by an adorable Korey Jackson as an equally guileless youth who fairly bursts with passion. Anxious to tell the world his secret, he spills the details to Arnolphe, which of course leads to further entertaining complications.
As the dim-witted servants supposed to keep an eye on Agnès while Arnolphe is away on a trip, siblings Carson Elrod (left, as Alain) and Bree Elrod (right, as Georgette) bring down the house every time they appear. It is to them that most of the physical comedy falls, and they perform it with gusto, especially in a very funny scene with vegetables. Their facial expressions telegraph their stupidity, as does their bumbling around trying to do their master's bidding. Steven Rattazzi matches their spot-on comedic timing in the role of a very self-important Notary well-versed in drawing up contracts of any sort.
Once again, Richard Wilbur's verse translation of Molière's script is a delight, what with clever—and often unexpected—rhymes that, well-delivered by the actors, never sink to doggerel. Almost a character in itself, David Gallo's set is equally as witty, with a townhouse facade that rotates to reveal a garden (left) complete with espaliered fruit trees trained to grow in strict designs against the wall. Fun props include a bicycle and Vespa scooter ridden with élan by Horace. Emily Rebholz's costumes suit each character very well, from Arnolphe's three-piece double-breasted pin-stripe suit to telegraph his place in society (and match his straight-laced demeanor) to Horace's more youthful blazer and slacks to Agnès' prim blue dress and Mary Jane shoes. Michael Chybowski's lighting and Brandon Wolcott's music and sound are equally as accomplished and burnish the production still further.
Of course, Molière's real target in The School for Wives is love. For a woman to love him, a man must make himself lovable—a lesson that Arnolphe learns all too late. It is a lesson all of us should learn to get along in this world—and it is delivered with great humor and fine talent by Two River Theater Company. For a rollicking good time, I suggest that you attend The School for Wives, pronto!
The School for Wives will be performed at Two River's Joan & Robert Rechnitz Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank, through October 5. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.345.1400 or visit www.tworivertheater.org online.
Photos © T Charles Erickson.