School for Wives
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 17, 2006
The grandest comic performance in town right now may very well be happening on the stage of the Pearl Theatre, where Dan Daily is essaying the role of Arnolphe in Moliere's delicious satire School for Wives. Arnolphe is a middle-aged man of cunning and bluster (though not intelligence or sense); in order to make sure his wife is not clever enough to play him for a cuckold, he has devised a scheme whereby he's essentially raised her on his own, housing and educating the beautiful Agnes himself, keeping her out of the clutches of any who might teach her the facts of life.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men: Horace, son of Arnolphe's old friend Oronte, has caught sight of Agnes in her window and set about wooing her (not knowing, of course, that the house where she resides with just two servants for company belongs to Arnolphe). The dashing and confident young Horace proceeds with a very successful seduction, and by the play's second scene he has just about stolen Agnes right out from under his older rival's nose. However, Horace confides in Arnolphe (again, not knowing that Arnolphe means to wed the girl himself), and in a succession of elaborate scenarios, contrives to win Agnes even as Arnolphe attempts to prevent him from doing so.
If the foregoing sounds like the outline of a Road Runner cartoon, well, it more or less is: Moliere is the master of farce, and what's more farcical than a slick, swift bird taking advantage of a puffed-up old coyote? That Moliere is also able to insert some genuine social commentary in his hilarious plot is the icing on the cake, especially since that commentary was so subversive in the time of King Louis XIV and remains yet unlearned in some quarters. Arnolphe is ridiculous to us because he believes not just that he can bend Agnes to his will but that he's entitled to do so; if the divine right of kings has gone out of fashion, the perquisites of the very rich have not.
Arnolphe is a glorious creation, a larger-than-life figure of fun who is almost never off stage. It calls for bravura showmanship and Daily delivers beautifully. He gets everything about this fellow spot-on: the foolish arrogance, the vanity, the swaggering cowardice, and the pathetic jealousy. He also finds, under the frippery, a heart in Arnolphe, and when Agnes informs him (matter-of-factly and more than once) that she prefers Horace, the suffering is palpable and genuine. If I may mix my Warner Brothers metaphor, Daily's plastic face reminded me more than once of Daffy Duck's, with its potent mix of damaged pride and vastly overrated self-worth: there's a moment in the second half of the play when, following a particularly (though unintentionally) vicious parry from Horace, Daily dissolves in the most vividly hilarious slow burn since Charles Durning's classic take in Tootsie.
Of course, Daily is not alone in School for Wives. Director Shepard Sobel, whose felicity for Moliere's brand of social comedy has been anticipated by his skillful direction of any number of Restoration Comedies at the Pearl in recent years, guides his fine ensemble superbly here. Hana Moon is delightfully guileless as the lovely Agnes, who makes up in simple candor what she's been denied in sophistication. As Daily's young rival Horace, Noel Velez embodies the giddy idiocy of infatuation quite beautifully, while Dominic Cuskern is suitably grounded as Arnolphe's friend Chrysalde, the one voice of reason in the play. TJ Edwards makes a great deal out of two cameo roles, first as an ancient notary whom Arnolphe has temporarily employed to draft a wedding contract, and later as Horace's father Oronte, who functions more or less as deus-ex-machina, wrapping the story up in orderly, if unlikely fashion.
Clowning spiritedly as Arnolphe's two servants are the invaluable Bradford Cover and Rachel Botchan; clowning is precisely the word I mean, as Sobel has conceived these two as modern-day commedia dell'arte caricatures, broadly poking fun at everything happening on stage (including Moliere's own conventions) to guide us gleefully into the world of the play. Earle Edgerton's smart, colloquial translation of the verse—never for one minute sing-songy—helps to make the piece accessible, too, as does Sara Bader's excellent sound design, which has a distinct country-western feel. Frank Champa's detailed costumes and Harry Feiner's simple setting place this School for Wives firmly in its original period, however; Sobel and his collaborators don't update or revise the play, they simply help us see how spectacularly resonant it can still feel. If you ever wondered how a 350-year-old comedy can truly be considered classic, well, here's your answer.
Most important, this School for Wives is enormous fun. I laughed and laughed, not just at Daily's splendid characterization but at (with) Cover and Botchan and all the others on stage. This is a charmer of a show, and just right for the entire family this holiday season, by the way!