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Theatre Review by Marc Miller - September 16, 2019

Aadya Bedi, Sathya Sridharan, and Purva Bedi
Photo by Joan Marcus

Not for nothing is the principal color of Wives purple. The lighting (Amith Chandrashker) is mostly purple. Many of Valerie Therese Bart's costumes are purple. And, most of all, Jaclyn Backhaus's prose is purple. Backhaus, whose most recent stage offering, India Pale Ale, was far less colorful, has written a time-hopping comedy that vents playfully and eloquently about the sorry lot of wives, and by extension all women, in a patriarchal society. How, she wonders, did we get here, and can the roles women have been pressed into ever be transcended? Wives is untidy and obsessive, and one is not always sure what Backhaus is trying to say, but it's still a zippy ride.

Whatever era she puts us in, Backhaus enjoys slanginess. We begin in the 16th century Loire Valley, where the loyalties of King Henri (Sathya Sridharan) are split between the queen, Catherine de Medici (Purva Bedi), and his mistress, though she's also informally referred to as a wife, Diane (Aadya Bedi). Before we meet any of them, and for no particular reason other than she's a fun diversion, we spend some time with the royal cook (Adina Verson). She's the only one who attempts an accent, a low-class Brit one, and she's there to supply tart commentary amid the bed- and alliance-hopping. Aggressively, Backhaus engages in contemporary-speak: "She's fly as hell!" goes a stage-direction description of Diane, who refers to the queen as "Your Maj," and the dialogue runs to, "Dare you speak to your fucking queen that way?" "Yeah, I dare, bitch." The two are nasty rivals, but when the king dies in a joust, and Catherine surreptitiously writes Diane out of his will, they bond and unite — because nobody expects them to, and isn't it delightful to play with people's minds.

Which Backhaus does: Forget France. Suddenly we're in Idaho in 1961, at a raucous memorial service, attended by his wives, for Ernest Hemingway. The widow, Mary, is somber and respectful, but she's eventually lured into Papa-mockery by the ex-wives, leading to some merry Hemingway lampoons. (Hemingway parodies onstage go back at least to Comden and Green's "Story Vignettes" section of Wonderful Town, and they're always fun — there's so much to mock.) Backhaus loves "like": "Like," says ex-wife Hadley, "what were women to him but a high-pitched series of holes with blinking eyes." Yet ex-wife Martha postulates that "Like, to be married is to be, like, property of someone, but also, like, to own them." Maybe, but that goes unexplored, and the key operative for these women is subservience. Which they resent plenty.

As does the next generation of women, in 1921, in Rajasthan. A nerdy British agent (Verson) is trying to protect the maharajah (Sridharan) from Roop Rai (Purva Bedi), a concubine who's also a witch, with little success. Which is fine, for Roop Rai's healing powers are genuine and needed, and conferred upon everyone, including the maharani (Aadya Bedi), whether she's a romantic rival or not. What Backhaus's point is here, I'm not sure — maybe that society's too quick to condemn outsiders whose contributions can be valuable, even if they're the Other Woman.

Anyway, we don't hang here for long. Suddenly we're at Oxbridge University, in the present but also out of the confines of time altogether, and still among witches. They worship Virginia Woolf, and they're determined to untether themselves from the male vision. I don't know exactly why we're here, either, but it's diverting to be among the witchy crew — one of whom, a young Indian student, conjures up her grandparents, who tell her what their lives were like. It's a prelude to a wife-validating finale, where the wife in question is assured, "Everything about you is right."

Backhaus sure bounces around, and her language, a sometimes-unwieldy frappe of poetry and prose, tends to dwell on simple points — mainly, the counterproductive trivialization of the female spouse — at the expense of plot, forward motion, and coherence. She does get off some good jokes, however, and her passion about her subject is so strong, it's forgivable if it's sometimes expressed at the expense of neatness. No great acting happens on Playwrights Horizons' small upstairs stage, but the three women shift smoothly and seamlessly from era to era and character to character, while Sridharan, amid so much estrogen, manages to stay handsome and dignified. Margot Bordelon's direction has pace and energy, and Reid Thompson's unfussy scenic design helps establish time and place.

Wives surely would benefit from another draft or two, to excise the needless verbal detours and perhaps give us more narrative to chew on. It's full of feeling, though, and if Backhaus's choices of time and place feel a little arbitrary, her fervent entreaty — give women more choices, more roles, more status-quo-subversion opportunities — comes ringing through.

Through October 6
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral