Three men are responsible for the very considerable joys of the Phoenix Theatre production of School for Wives at the Wilbur. In no particular order they are: Richard Wilbur, Brian Bedford, and Moliere. Each has his own contribution toward making this a funny, fresh, and wise play, rich in the kind of timeless laughter that characterizes comedy at its best.
Richard Wilbur is responsible for the verse translation of Moliere's play. It's a very difficult task to make an American audience sit through a play in which the characters speak in verse: we'll make the necessary effort for Shakespeare, but we're not used to it, and it sounds--well, phoney. Especially when it rhymes. Wilbur's translation, however is so wonderfully apt and witty that it's a pleasure to hear it spoken. There are few trite or forced rhymes. And it's a novel and delightful experience to find oneself laughing at a particularly unexpected yet apt rhyme. With apologies to Ogden Nash, it's greater talent to make one laugh at true rhymes rather than manufactured ones.
Brian Bedford won a Tony for his role as Arnolphe, the schemer who dreads being cuckolded above all things, and he deserves it. He dominates the play. He's on stage practically every moment, plotting, soliloquizing, raging, whining. He has a squinting, toothy, obviously insincere smile that he must use two dozen times in the course of the play, and each time it brings a laugh. To express surprise his mouth opens into a huge rectangle and stays there for seconds. When he is in pain or sorrow, he screws up his entire face so that all we can see is part of his nose. It's an outrageously exaggerated performance, and it works.
Both these remarkable efforts wouldn't exist except for the original inspiration of Moliere's play. School for Wives was written three hundred years ago, and, contrary to what we might expect, it has little to say about women's liberation or any other contemporary concerns. Of course there are a couple of speeches which gain a certain added irony from our current obsession with a woman's place, but that will happen in almost any play that deals with men and women.
Arnolphe, fearing those legendary horns of the cuckold, has raised his ward, a lovely, blushing maiden, to be ignorant and totally naive: in other words, to be the perfect male for him. It is the witty, worldly-wise woman, he reasons, who charms the gallant and places the horns on her husband's head. The play details the inevitable failure of Arnolphe's plan. The girl, Agnes, falls in love with a simple-minded gallant, Horace, and she suddenly develops a measure of ingenious cunning which delivers her (with the help of a few suitable ridiculous coincidences at the end) from the clutches of her guardian.
Though there is satire on Arnolphe's attempt to dominate and mold Agnes in School for Wives, its theme is simpler and more universal: love conquers narrowness and selfish obsessions. Moliere's genius is in depicting a character who is the apotheosis of some short-sighted way of looking at the world, and in gleefully and decisively destroying that viewpoint. Arnolphe, though made human and rather sympathetic by Bedford (who is simply too likeable an actor to portray total evil), loses, and deserves to lose; his snivelling retreat while the happy lovers embrace is the high point of the play.
The rest of the cast is merely an adjunct to Bedford's performance as Arnolphe. Sharon Smith is appropriately lovely and beguiling as Agnes; David Dukes is appropriately dashing and silly as Horace. Of the others, David Hook is noteworthy as Chrysalde, a friend of Arnolphe's who tries to make him widen his perspective on life. The set is pretty and very functional, and the costumes (who doesn't get a kick out of the 17th century French outfits?) are gorgeous.
Somehow, it's good to know that one can still laugh long and hard at a play about cuckoldry. The old traditions don't die, they don't even become modern. They just stay funny. It's impossible to tell you why or how, just go to the Wilbur and enjoy.