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'The Country Wife' in Bright, Funny Revival

AMERICAN SHAKESPEARE THEATRE: II

By Caldwell Titcomb

STRATFORD, Conn.--Cuckoldry and castration do not often go hand in hand; but the two are paired in Wycherley's The Country Wife, which the American Shakespeare Theatre has revived this summer. The play has frequently been considered the most indecent one we have--at least until the most recent work of Arrabal.

Over the past decade the AST has deserted its titular playwright eight times, but in so doing it has never gone back beyond early Shaw. Now it has reached back to the Restoration comedy of manners, and decided to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Wycherley play's first performance.

Restoration comedy is something we hear a good deal about, but we rarely see it actually put on the boards. I know of only three major Eastern productions of The Country Wife in our century: 1936, with Ruth Gordon in the title role; 1957, with Julie Harris; and the lackluster 1965 revival at Lincoln Center.

The genesis of the genre lies in the fact that, when pressure has built up for a long time and an outlet is at last afforded, there is likely to be an explosion. Under the intolerant Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell, the theatres were kept closed for nearly two decades--"The grey Puritan is a sick man, soul and body sick," wrote D.H. Lawrence. With the accession in 1660 of Charles II, who liked the theatre, the lid blew off, and licentiousness swept high society. The Restoration aristocrats would have agreed with Havelock Ellis that sex is "the central problem of life"; for them the problem was how to get as much of it as possible.

This attitude was directly reflected in the new sexual comedy of manners, which flourished for nearly a half century. The marriage bond was not taken very seriously, and we got a steady parade of adulterers, cuckolds, jealous husbands, fops, hypocritical ladies, and all manner of intrigue. A contributing factor was the emergence for the first time of professional actresses--to replace the young boys who had traditionally played female roles. Thus these comedies are filled with colorful and clever scheming women, originally portrayed by players whose morals were often as loose in real life as on the stage.

Curiously, though, the five foremost practitioners of the genre were far from prolific. Etherege wrote only three plays; Wycherley, four; Vanbrugh (also renowned as an architect), three and a half; Congreve (the most accomplished of the group), five; and Farquhar, seven and a half. This corpus laid the foundation and set the standard for the two supreme masterpeices of the genre: Sheridan's The School for Scandal, a century later; and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, two centuries later.

THE PLAYING of Restoration comedy demands, above all, style--group style. And this is something American companies generally lack. For the current Country Wife, the AST imported the British director David Giles, best known here for having directed the bulk of the Forsyte Saga television series. Giles has been surprisingly effective in eliciting a creditable ensemble performance on this side of the Atlantic. The result is a highly entertaining show, even if it betrays some unevenness and sags a little toward the end (the text itself sags here and there, too). It would be unfair to demand the sustained glitter that a top British troupe could bring to the task, and one can be grateful for a company that comes as close as this one.

Giles faced another problem, arising from the fact that Restoration dramaturgy characteristically indulged in lavish scenery and frequent switch of locale. The Country Wife has 12 scenes, which shift among five different locations. If there were five full-stage sets, it would require considerable time to change from one to another. Yet it seemed essential to have recognizable and furnished acting areas.

The solution that designer Ed Wittstein settled on was to construct a huge fixed set made up of portions of the required locales. In the rear we see tall diagonal cutouts representing the facades of London houses. To the left we have Horner's lodging, assumed to be on the second story since it is reached by a stairwell opening up through the stage floor. It is a lived-in space, decked out with a fireplace on whose mantle sit an hourglass, an astrolabe and a drinking-mug. There are a chandelier, a terrestrial globe on a stand, a mirror, antlers on the wall, and, most appropriately, a folding screen depicting the nude mythological Leda about to be impregnated by Zeus-as-swan. Doors lead offstage to other rooms, including the hyperactive bedroom.

The middle of the stage, with fish and book wagons rolled in, becomes the New Exchange, a fashionable center of commerce; and, with the wagons withdrawn, it serves as the colonnaded piazza of Covent Garden. At the right we have Pinchwife's stylish country-house drawing-room, and a flight of stairs leading up to a bedchamber containing a large canopied bed.

With the help of Marc B. Weiss's lighting, our attention can be shifted from place to place quickly, and the play's momentum can go forward unimpeded. Aside from the solo verse Prologue and Epilogue, here omitted, the five acts of the text seem intact, and the show has a running-time of two hours and three-quarters.

In opting for this solution, however, Giles was faced with a pronounced disadvantage, which he has not been able to overcome. The individual scenes are--to use Macbeth's words, which will be spoken on this stage later in the season--"cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in." This is particularly unfortunate, because the play often requires a large number of characters to be on stage at the same time. Thus the players are denied the lebensraum that should ideally be available to them, and they often cannot help getting in each other's way.

THE PREMISE of The Country Wife is Dr. Quack's spreading around London the report that Horner, as a result of unbridled whoring in France, contracted venereal disease and was castrated by the French physician treating him. Thus Horner, horny as ever, can easily cuckold unsuspecting husbands who believe him capable only of platonic friendships. (The device of the phoney impotent comes from the ancient Roman Eunuchus by Terence, who in turn took it from a lost Greek original by Menander.)

Philip Kerr, with long-flowing locks and rich red garb, looks the proper--or, rather, improper--libertine. Wycherley made his Horner an allegro con brio role. Kerr plays it allegro all right, but his portrayal needs more brio. Still, he speaks crisply, and handles his walking-stick as though born with one.

The play's major interest attaches to Pinchwife and his young bride Margery. Wycherley, who was educated in France, modeled the pair on characters in Moliere's School for Husbands and School for Wives; the jealous and overprotective Pinchwife corresponds to Sganarelle and Arnolphe, the outwitting Margery to Isabella and Agnes. Jack Gwillim's gray-bearded Pinchwife is all gruff and grum, but the part is a stock two-dimensional character that admits of little variety.

The triumph of this production is the Margery of Carole Shelley, making her AST debut. It is an unalloyed delight to follow her progress from an innocent country wife to a sophisticated cunt-ry mistress (Wycherley surely intended the punning title). Miss Shelley has the advantage of being British herself and of knowing just how to deal with Margery's unrefined diction. How honestly she skips about on learning she has smitten a man at the theatre! What a laugh she elicits on exclaiming, "Oh jeminy!," when first introduced to the Horner she has heard about! How telling her little gasp on finally entering Horner's bedroom!

She is an absolute maryel in the play's most celebrated scene (again suggested by School for Husbands), in which she is forced by Pinchwife to write an odious letter to Horner from dictation and then manages to substitute another of opposite sentiment. Her pauses, her inflections, and her iterations of the simple expletive "so" are indescribably funny. One notices her sly smile on penning "For Mister Horner," one senses her giddy excitement on being able to write her own letter, one enjoys her unconscious tickling of her nose with the quill, one shares her gleeful success at hiding the dictated letter under Pinchwife's very wig. Miss Shelley gives an exhibition of consummate artistry.

Of the three town ladies with pretensions to virtue, the Lady Fidget of Christina Pickles comes off best, though more vocal modulation would help. As her sidekicks Mrs. Dainty Fidget and Mrs. Squeamish, Grayce Grant and Joan Pape provide their quota of amusement. Curt Dawson and Ronald Frazier (who likes to smoke a long clay pipe) are a trifle bland as Harcourt and Dorilant, two gallants who envy Horner's success. Rex Everhart, as Sir Jasper, is foolish enough but lacks class, and should be told that the game is blindman's-buff, not blindman's-bluff. David Rounds, with beauty spots on his right chin and left cheek, has great fun with the role of Sparkish, a fop (who has a counterpart in most Restoration comedies), wielding a lorgnon and indulging in an affected speech that suggests a male Edith Evans. These characters and all the others benefit from Jane Greenwood's gorgeous period costumes.

This more than decent production of a more than indecent play should prick the titillation of everybawdy.

(Ed. Note--The drive to the picturesque AST grounds on the Housatonic River takes about two and a half hours via the Massachusetts Turnpike. Interstate 91, and the Connecticut Turnpike to Exit 32 or 31. Performances in the air-conditioned Theatre traditionally tend to begin promptly at 2 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. There are free facilities for picnickers on the premises.)

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