Two new offerings, written 275 years apart, share a devilish delight in sending their beleaguered characters scurrying across loaded minefields in pursuit of that ever-elusive condition known as connubial bliss. One of these comedies is a venerated classic; the other should be.
First, the known quantity. Molière's The School for Wives, which debuted in Paris in 1662, opens the nineteenth season at St. Louis Shakespeare. The plot concerns Arnolphe, a foolish bachelor who is so paranoid at the prospect of being cuckolded that he placed his intended bride into a secluded convent at age four. All these years later, the beautiful Agnes is so simpleminded that a notion as devious as adultery would never penetrate her empty brain. If no other original ideas are able to enter that vacuous head, well, that's the price one must pay for marital security.
The hilarity begins when Arnolphe returns home, expecting to wed Agnes on the morrow, only to learn that during his brief absence the naïve bride-to-be has allowed herself to be wooed by an ardent young swain. Arnolphe's determined efforts to rid himself of the pesky suitor comprise this two-hour traffic on the stage. A succinct two hours it is: how refreshing that a play can be so complete, so fulfilling and, at the same time, so compact. And did we mention that the script is composed in rhymed verse?
Don't allow the prospect of rhymed couplets to scare you off. As translated with sublime brilliance by poet Richard Wilbur, the rhymes flow so naturally that they become integral to the action. At the same time, the couplets are so cloud-light as to take one's breath away. You could close your eyes and still have a marvelous time by simply allowing this airy cascade of iambic pentameter to roll over you.
But then you'd miss the manic physicality of Todd Gillenardo's lunatic protagonist. His Arnolphe is wound as tightly as a constipated clock. As he peers at his numerous imagined enemies through furrowed eyebrows -- actually, it's not the brows that furrow so much as it is the entire forehead -- Gillenardo can turn an innocuous ball of yarn into a menacing spider's web in which he becomes the tangled, captive fly. Yet through all this exhaustive effort, he delivers the verse effortlessly.
Gillenardo's seething Arnolphe is well countered by Sara Renschen's demure Agnes. Renschen is quietly emerging as one of the area's more interesting actresses. Her understated portrayals always strike a lucid tone. Consider her work here: Molière only gives Agnes one moment in which to show off. That moment occurs late in the evening, when she reveals that she knows Arnolphe has cultivated her to be a simpleton. ("Oh, it humiliates me; I revolt / Against the shame of being such a dolt.") How tempting it must be for an actress to tear into that scene and have at him. Yet Renschen eschews easy theatrics. Her attack possesses bite, but it is delivered in vacuous character.
In addition to the two leads, Lavonne Byers and Penney Kols as Arnolphe's two servants (changed here with no real harm from a man and woman to two women) add to the wicked fun. Doubtless, some of the supporting actors will grow more comfortable with reciting verse dialogue as they begin to trust the enthusiastic audience response.
A few concerns: The scenic design looks more threadbare than one is accustomed to seeing at St. Louis Shakespeare, and the staging by director Donna Northcott -- at the climaxes of both acts, for instance -- lacks the panache that Molière invites. And why, pray tell, in the middle of Act 1 does a horde of people inexplicably cross the stage, as if in search of People's Coffee (the neighborhood coffee shop which is remaining open after the show)? Very strange indeed.
Happily, however, this production gets the big things right, the most important of which is Gillenardo's Arnolphe, a performance that, as it nibbles at the edge of violence, reminds us of how closely aligned comedy and tragedy are. The other big thing St. Louis Shakespeare gets right is its initial decision to have staged the play to begin with. To too many people, the word "classic" is synonymous with something dusty and remote. But if this be classic comedy, bring it on.
ACT, Inc. is also to be commended for mounting the rarely seen J. B. Priestley comedy, When We Are Married. Here's the premise. In 1908, three British couples have gathered together to celebrate their silver wedding anniversaries. All three were married on the same September day 25 years ago by the same eager young parson. Now, at the height of their revelry, they learn that the parson was a little too eager, for he was not yet authorized to preside over marriages. These six are not legally married, a revelation which leads to all sorts of potentially humorous situations.
Ever since it debuted in England in 1938, When We Are Married has been a repertory theater staple, as admired as Hobson's Choice. A recent London revival was so relentlessly droll that attendees almost needed seat belts to keep from rolling off their chairs. But in America, When We Are Married had the misfortune of opening on Broadway during the same December week in 1939 that Gone With the Wind premiered, a week in which no one was paying much attention to live theater. Today, apart from the occasional rollicking production like the one at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre in 1989, the play remains unknown in this country.
This means that certain demands are required of those who do produce it. Most immediately, a production must lead the viewers -- by the hand, if necessary -- into Priestley's universe. Most American playgoers don't know Priestley; those few who do equate him with mysteries like An Inspector Calls. An audience needs to be informed that When We Are Married is a comedy and that laughter is encouraged. How can this be accomplished? There needs to be a big laugh in the first minute, sooner, if possible -- something that will release audience inhibitions. At last Saturday night's performance, the first moderately big laugh occurred 25 minutes into Act 1. For a comedy, 25 minutes of silence -- even attentive silence -- is a mortal wound.
While it's true that Act 1 is mostly exposition, no theater rule states that exposition can't be funny. As staged here, in the first act a viewer could be excused for thinking he'd stumbled into an Ibsen play. Not only do several of the male characters come across as boorish and harsh -- but they're boorish and harsh and humorless. No matter how you do the math, it does not add up to laughter. Priestley subtitled his play "A Yorkshire Farcical Comedy." This production has the Yorkshire, all right; the accents are as thick as cold gravy. But they omitted the farce.
Eventually the momentum takes hold and does provide a fitfully entertaining evening. Although this mounting doesn't flush out any of the themes that Priestley sets forth -- class struggles between young and old and servant and master -- there are some performances of note. As an inebriated newspaper photographer who spouts unexpected good sense ("people has to be easy in their minds to be photographed, nobody ever comes with the toothache to 'ave their photos taken"), Richard Lewis does a bang-up job of conveying a sense of time and place. So too does Suzanne Greenwald as one of the three put-upon wives. Both actors seem to appreciate the energy that is required to bring material like this to life.
By contrast, Melissa Crowley's young serving maid -- a study in perky perpetual motion -- personifies the production's lack of invention. Surely it's not her fault, but throughout the evening Crowley makes every entrance at the same roadrunner gait. Farce is often thought to require speed, yet paradoxically, in this play the more the actors slow down, the funnier they become. Then too, one of Priestley's goals is to show how, as the masters' lives are affected by startling news, so too are the servants'. With some imagination, Crowley's various appearances could inform the audience about the wild mood swings that are occurring in the household.
It is not to be. Although the production still offers a rare opportunity to encounter a gem of a play, this When We Are Married is also an opportunity missed.
Correction published 7/30/03:
In the original version of this story, Colleen Backer was misidentified as the serving maid, a role performed by Melissa Crowley. In fact, reports theater critic Dennis Brown, Backer gave a delightful performance as the ingénue. The above version reflects the corrected text.