The Magnificent Cuckold
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 15, 2007
The Magnificent Cuckold is about a young man whose love for his beautiful new wife goes beyond obsessive, into the realm of maniacal. He becomes madly concerned that she will be unfaithful to him; so much so that he decides that the only way to appease his anxiety is for her to make love to another man at his direction, under his nose. When that fails to satisfy, he turns himself into the figure described in the play's title, with his neighbors lining up for a go at his wife (so to speak; and their wives ready to run her out of town).
Written by the Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynck and presented by East River Commedia in a new translation by Ben Sonnenberg and Amiel Melnick, Cuckold proves to be a fascinating but problematic play. Fascinating because its premise is so wildly modern, or postmodern: Bruno, the title character, can easily be construed as symbolizing, say, a monomaniacal president or dictator so convinced that his enemies will attack that he stages the attack himself—that feels disturbingly timely, doesn't it?
But it's problematic because Crommelynck's metaphor (let's assume it's a metaphor) is hard to look at in 2007. Like Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, another play I have real difficulty watching, The Magnificent Cuckold turns on the notion that a wife is a husband's property, for him to do with as he pleases, and all the satirical/absurdist trappings in the world don't make that notion any easier to swallow.
Director Paul Bargetto doesn't really address this issue in his production; his focus is squarely on the destructiveness of Bruno's obsession, and if the longish script/playing time (nearly three hours) repeats and overstates the case somewhat, the intention is clear. Not at all incidentally, Cuckold emerges as a showcase for Bargetto's versatile and energetic leading man, Troy Lavallee, who delivers a performance of great physicality and vigor that manages to make the topsy-turvy protagonist likable against the odds, almost 'til the very end.
The production is robustly ambitious, sporting a large unit set by Mimi Lien that recreates the mill where Bruno is supposed to live with his young wife, Stella. There are moments when Tim Cryan's lighting burnishes the wooden shutters, doors, and window frames with a lustrous golden glow, creating some lovely stage pictures. Other times in the play, though, the set feels cumbersome and difficult for the actors to navigate.
There are 15 actors in the ensemble, but unfortunately the performances are uneven. Lavallee, Tuomas Hiltunen (as Bruno's put-upon assistant, Estrugo), and Reet Roos Värnik (who plays Stella's stalwart, sturdy Nurse) are the standouts here; all three seem simpatico with Bargetto's highly physical, stylized approach to the material, and the scenes where Lavallee plots Bruno's ridiculous escalations with Hiltunen are probably the most effective in the show. Some of the crowd scenes just feel noisy and anarchic, though.
It's interesting to get to see this rarely-produced play; and Bargetto's commitment to it, and to bringing a truly diverse, international company together to mount it, is admirable. But for me it was tough to move past the very dated aspects of the script to embrace what might be pertinent to us today.