Tepid School for Wives at Centenary Stage
Also see Bob's review of Omnium Gathering
As the play begins, the middle-aged Arnolphe discloses to his friend Chrysalde that he will now marry his 17-year-old ward Agnes. In preparation for their marriage, Arnolphe had kept Agnes in a convent school since she was four years old with the instruction that she remain uneducated, and innocent to the ways of the world. Wildly fearful of being cuckolded (after long delighting in mocking others who were doth victimized), Arnolphe is convinced that Agnes' innocence and ignorance will protect him from wearing horns. Yet, already Agnes has innocently set her sights on Horace, the son of an old friend of Arnolphe. Not knowing that Arnolphe is the foolish guardian who is trying to keep him from Agnes, Horace repeatedly shares with him each of his plans to tryst with Agnes.
Centenary Artistic Director Carl Wallnau is the director and leading player here. As Arnolphe, he is a perfect pompous fool. Although his blustery Arnolphe is no danger to the young lovers from the beginning, Wallnau manages to become increasingly foolish and frazzled as the play progresses. His timing, line readings and body language convey haplessness and hilarity without ever once winking at the audience.
Osborn Focht is effortlessly the sensible voice of reason as Chrysalde. Philip Mutz is an agreeably smooth and likeable Horace. As the greedy and only as foolish as they want to be servants recruited by Arnolphe to aid in his cause, Stuart Fingeret and Danielle Tampier acquit themselves well performing the standard comic bits with which they have been provided. Ed Schiff has the small but pivotal role of Oronte. The information that Oronte brings late on would be clearer if the companion role of Eduardo had not been eliminated.
Wallnau has undermined all of the good work by his direction of Katie Tame in the role of Agnes. Tame stomps instead of walks, literally throws herself all about the stage, screams shrilly, and dances about in the manner of a three-year-old. This lollypop sucking, live Warner Brothers Looney Tune Agnes would make the personable, clever Horace head immediately for the exit. There is nothing either in the script or direction to suggest that Agnes is pretending to be this way to gull Arnolphe. Later, when Tame reads aloud a letter that she has received from Horace, she reads it in a bright and beguiling manner which conveys warmth, happiness and intelligence. These two Agneses are not the same person. Wallnau may have been overburdened by the dual tasks of lead actor/director or may not have sufficiently trust the play and/or his audience. Leon Hill is the notary whom Arnolphe consults about his marriage contract. Why does he have an exaggerated French accent (which makes it difficult to hear his dialogue) when no one else has any accent? If memory serves, Hill is repeating the same self-delighted, overly foppish, inappropriate performance, accent and all, that he gave here in the last two years in Tartuffe and She Stoops to Conquer.
The set by Brian Flynn (the front of a house) is in picture book colors and resembles an inexpensive post-World War II home in a suburban development. It is so unfitting for School For Wives that it seems to have been designed for another play.
Centenary Stage is performing School For Wives in a fine English verse translation.
School For Wives continues performances (Thurs. 7:30 PM/ Fri. & Sat. 8 PM/ Wed. & Sun. 2:30 PM) through October 21, 2007 at the Centenary Stage Company on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box Office: 908-979-0900. online www.centenarystageco.org/.
School For Wives by Moliere; directed by Carl Wallnau