Review: 2nd Story's spirited School For Wives

The mating game
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  November 24, 2010

Theater_2ndStory_Christmas_main
MOONING AND SPOONING Sherba and Church.

With increasing delight, we knew what was ahead for us when Tom Roberts, in whiteface and rosy cheeks, gave the 2nd Story Theatre audience their customary instructions in verse: "If at intermission you phone, text or tweet/ please turn it off when you return to your seat," and such.

That part wasn't written by poet Richard Wilbur, the adaptor of Molière's The School for Wives, but it demonstrated that this production (through December 12), directed by Ed Shea and co-founder Pat Hegnauer, is being conducted in the full spirit of the farcical proceedings.

Roberts plays Alain, a servant along with wife Georgette (Paula Faber), who together maintain the default comical tone of the play, that of the powerless being mistreated by the powerful but who eventually get back with fitting vengeance.

They are the servants of Arnolphe (Shea), a middle-class, middle-aged bachelor so horrified by the potential of someday being cuckolded by a wife that he dec-ades ago made preventive plans. He took guardianship of orphaned four-year-old Agnes (Gabby Sherba), then placed her in a convent where nuns were instructed to keep her ignorant as well as innocent; his eventual wife would be dumb as a stump but immune from the popular social convention of sleeping around.

In the opening scene, his friend Chrysalde (Rendueles Villalba), a monsignor, tries to convince him that being cuckolded by an unfaithful wife is far better than being constantly harangued by a shrewish one. Arnolphe is unmoved. He will marry Agnes.

Agnes is unaware of his plans for her. A handsome young man named Horace (Jeff Church) has been mooning and spooning outside her window and, being unusually trusting, she has succumbed to his charms — though so far she has yielded only her heart. Horace is unaware that the kindly man, a friend of his father's, who lends him money early on, is his beloved's jailkeeper, and Arnolphe at first doesn't know that the captivating object of the boy's hormonal attention is his captive ward.

Wilbur's translation/adaptation is exquisite without being precious. Arnolphe wants a wife "who, indeed, if she were asked in some Insipid parlor game, 'What rhymes with drum?'/Would answer in all innocence, 'A fife'/In short, I want an unaccomplished wife."

This is a romantic farce, so we know where everything is heading, that the young lovers will end up united. The fun is in the silly complications leading up to that happy ending. There are many. There is an abused servants turnabout, where their boss recruits Alain and Georgette to practice pummeling him as they would a thief, and they get into it with gusto. Arnolphe yo-yos between rage and love, and Shea brings down the house with a two-word response after his character finishes reading his ward's letter to her lover. When Agnes discovers his marital scheme, he gets a similar response with a similarly well-timed, "Well, now ya know."

Instead of multiple slammed doors we get a revolving door, for perfect timing with simultaneous entrances and exits.

A strobe light during wordless transition between some scenes provides an entertaining silent movie effect as characters tiptoe or hustle. Costume designer Allison Walker Carrier continues the 1920s setting with tweed knickers on Horace, and she has Arnolphe stiffly dignified in coattails.

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