Moliere’s The School for Wives kicks off PlayMakers Repertory Company’s 25th anniversary season with a bang–and some clangs, a few thumps, the occasional yowl and the silent, slo-mo descent of a flowerpot onto a lovesick noggin. This rambunctious production adds weight to something I’ve long suspected, which is that the PRC’s house style (a blend of hustle, intelligence, crisp vocal delivery and clockwork precision) may be more suited to farce than to any other style of drama. It also proves something every local theatergoer already knows, which is that Ray Dooley is one of the best and most versatile actors this area has ever seen.
Dooley has been with the PRC since 1989, the year he joined the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty. In that time I’ve watched him play characters as varied as a menacing, lowbrow drifter in Sam Shepard’s True West; the sentimental, otherworldly Herr Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker; a hearty but cold-blooded surgeon in last year’s Wit; and the self-tortured Leontes in A Winter’s Tale.
That last role is the most interesting to set beside the current one. Like Shakespeare’s Leontes–a man literally driven mad by his own unfounded doubts about his wife’s fidelity–Moliere’s Arnolphe is obsessed with the thought that women’s chief joy in life is to make cuckolds of their husbands. But Leontes was a king in ancient Sicily, and his mania combined with absolute power to produce heartbreak, exile and death. Arnolphe is a middle-aged, bourgeois businessman in present-day (that is, 17th-century) Paris, and all he can do is keep his teenaged bride-to-be, Agnes, hidden away from worldly temptations for as long as possible and hope for the best. This being comedy, the best comes to pass–and is the exact opposite of Arnolphe’s plans.
The unraveling of those plans forms almost all of the play’s action, and the chief delight of László Marton’s production is watching Dooley’s comic agony as they collapse around him. He conceals his dismay–barely–when Agnes innocently confesses her joy at meeting a handsome young man. He swallows his bile–almost–when the son of an old friend boasts of being the young man in question. His performance is a masterpiece of attempting to maintain decorum amid mounting chaos.
The agony isn’t entirely comic, either–Dooley wrings genuine pathos out of the Act Two monologue in which Arnolphe realizes Agnes will never return his love–but the fact that Arnolphe’s plans should collapse is the humane and serious message at the heart of The School for Wives. Women, Moliere says, are people, and treating them as clay to be molded into fantasy figures is, quite literally, perverse. (This knowledge may have been hard-won: Moliere wrote the play several years after marrying, at age 50, his ex-mistress’s 19-year-old daughter.) I suspect it’s no accident that Hannah Moon, who plays Agnes, bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the current Mrs. Woody Allen.
Marton’s production is full of such witty touches. Alan Armstrong’s costumes incorporate baseball caps, pocket protectors and other modern-day effluvia into their 17th-century outlines, and McKay Coble’s set plops a house resembling Dr. Caligari’s behind a moving circular fence that looks like it belongs around the polar bear enclosure at the zoo.
The cast is unusually strong, even for the PRC. Moon’s portrait of Agnes as a beautiful, life-loving and naturally intelligent young woman makes the doom of Arnolphe’s scheme all the more inevitable. As her lover, Horace, Noel Velez turns what could be a conventional pretty-boy role into a lusty, open-shirted ball of fire with the bounce of Tigger and a touch of self-mockery in his swagger.
Beth Hylton and Marc Alexander Stern provide good low comedy as Arnolphe’s servants (and Hylton gets extra credit for navigating the stage of the Paul Green Theatre in six-inch heels). Buzz Bovshow is quietly effective as the levelheaded Chrysalde, Arnolphe’s confidant. And the entire cast, whose other members are Brian Robinson, Joseph A. Cincotti and former PRC regular Ken Strong, deserves the heartiest congratulation on handling Richard Wilbur’s verse translation,
Which rhymes, but which they speak with such finesse
You hardly ever notice it, unless
Some joke falls on a mot supremely juste.
I trust my readers need no more excuse
To add a little pleasure to their lives
By taking in this splendid School for Wives.