In one of her more-inspired routines, Bette Midler refers to Long Island as "Satan's little theme park." And indeed, as used as a setting for William Wycherley's satiric masterpiece of English Restoration comedy The Country Wife, LI does qualify as a special place in hell.
The Country Wife is probably the lewdest comedy ever written
and also one of the funniest. Three hundred twenty-five years
after its premiere, its merciless skewering of sexual hypocrisy
keeps it fresh, while its elegant, late-17th-century language
is far more accessible to modern ears than, say, the Jacobean
English of Ben Jonson. In theatre parlance, it still works, especially
in a good production that trusts the material enough not to add
salacious nudges that its already double-entendre-laced script
does not need.
Although its obsession with all things sexual does bear a superficial resemblance to the free-wheeling, anything-goes permissiveness of the late 1970s, Alexa Kelly's production for Pulse Ensemble Theatre, in placing the action in "a town like New York, a place like ... Long Island" at a time when "sex was safe and free," missed the point of Wycherley's bubbling, witty satire. To set such a jewel of period style in an era renowned for its very lack of style has to qualify for first prize in the "What the hell were they thinking?" sweepstakes. Overwhelmed by period-specific visual puns and grating Long Island accents, the resulting production was akin to being stuck in traffic on the LI Expressway in a Volkswagen Beetle with Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco screaming at each other for nearly three hours. Painful, and not a bit funny.
It is to the credit of each member of the large cast that they performed without a flicker of embarrassment. Whether this was due to the actors' professionalism or a complete lack of understanding of the material was impossible to ascertain, although one hopes it was the former while unhappily suspecting the latter.
Jennifer Varbalow's glossy-black-and-chrome set, complete with mirror ball and animal print pillows, was probably more ambitious in concept than its poorly executed finished state displayed. (Helpful hint: NEVER use gloss-black paint on rough, unfinished walls.) Patrick Rinn's faithful costumes reminded that the late '70s were not a time of sartorial splendor for anybody, although Herrick Goldman's lighting added to the disco atmosphere with a colorfully pulsating energy. The well-chosen music had the unfortunate habit of ending with abrupt clicks that, like the endless scene changes they covered, helped to give the evening a fitful, stop-and-start pacing.
It has been said many times before: there is nothing wrong with taking a fresh look at the standard repertoire, as long as the creative risks taken serve the material instead of serving their own cleverness. William Wycherley's The Country Wife is a sturdy classic that more than holds its own and can still glimmer through excesses that would bury a lesser work. But Kelly's production, like the decade in which it was set, was mechanical, plastic and joyless. Pity.
(Featuring Steve Abbruscato, Sarah Dandridge, Joy Jones, John Arthur Lewis, David Marantz, Brian McCormack, Paula Nance, Linda Past, Brian Richardson, Caleb Sekeres, Danielle Stilli, Eva Van Dok, Natalie Wilder, Jeff Williams.)
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita