Banned for 170 years because of its licentious plot and language so bawdy it would have made Shakespeare blush, William Wycherly’s 1675 farce The Country Wife – a favorite of Charles II – has, in our post-Victorian age, returned to popularity in all its dirty glory. HoNkBarK!’s ambitious new production eschews sociological analysis in favor of playing it mostly straight, which, in this case, puts the focus squarely on the play’s bent zaniness.
Based loosely on several earlier plays, including Molière’s more mannerly School For Husbands and School For Wives, Wycherly’s intricately plotted comedy weaves together three strands. The title character (Kristin Price), a young, sexually ripe naïf, is seduced by the profane charms of city life, much to the consternation of her jealous middle-aged husband (Ray Rodriguez). The object of her affections is Horner (Richard Haratine), a libertine gentleman who has spread a rumor that he’s become impotent, so as to be trusted alone with London’s desperate housewives. Meanwhile Horner’s pal Harcourt falls in love with the principled Alithea (Linda Jones), who is, alas, betrothed to the outrageously foppish Sparkish (Brian Linden).
How it all turns out isn’t important; it’s the wit that counts. Indeed Horner and his friends are self-conscious Wits, out-flowering each other’s similes and engaging the audience in panicky asides as they get entangled in their own absurd tricks. Linden is hilarious as the ridiculous but ultimately sympathetic fop who only thinks he can match wits with the smarter gentlemen, Price charms as the innocent but surprisingly resourceful country wife, and Haratine commands the stage as Horner, the hyper-confident cuckold-maker. The fast pace and continuous barrage of flamboyant dialogue demands close attention, but the play would be too long if paced more slowly. Crisply directed by John Ficarra and extravagantly costumed by Karl A. Ruckdeschel, the able and enthusiastic cast dances through the complex plot with the precise timing of an OK Go video.
The production, on this preview weekend, was still a little rough around the edges. The live baroque-style music suffered from weak wit and imperfect performance, while the lovely scenery, which consisted entirely of paintings – some cleverly applied to window shades – balked now and again. But as the production is quite ambitious for off-off-Broadway, with complex material, a large cast, and spectacular costuming, I found these flaws mostly forgivable and the play a nearly unqualified delight.
The student of theater will detect the influence of both Shakespeare and Molière in Wycherly’s flowery language and precise dissection of human foibles, and in turn find echoes of The Country Wife in farces and comedies of manners down to modern times – from Wodehouse to Ayckbourne, Monty Python to Gilligan’s Island. But this play is a good time in and of itself. No special knowledge of Restoration England is needed, for the human comedy, as captured by Wycherly’s barbed quill, has changed little since his time.
Through January 27 at the McGinn Cazale Theatre on Broadway & 76th St. in New York City.