Moliere's difficult comedy of sexual innocence and distress is beautifully presented in Jonathan Kent's production, which could serve as a virtual paradigm of the Almeida house style at its best. From Peter J. Davison's elegantly angled French provincial set to Richard Wilbur's supple verse translation, the evening has a fluency rarely found in period comedy of any nationality.

Moliere’s difficult comedy of sexual innocence and distress is beautifully presented in Jonathan Kent’s production, which could serve as a virtual paradigm of the Almeida house style at its best. From Peter J. Davison’s elegantly angled French provincial set to Richard Wilbur’s supple verse translation, the evening has a fluency rarely found in period comedy of any nationality.

Add to that a cast alive to moods that shift as quickly as lighting designer Peter Mumford’s skies and you’ve got as buoyant an entertainment as London is likely to offer this holiday season. (The Laura Pels Foundation, principal backer of Tony Randall’s National Actors’ Theater, is the show’s sponsor.)

The situation is classically ironic: Arnolphe (Ian McDiarmid), a 42-year-old bachelor smitten with his young ward, Agnes (Emma Fielding), is so fearful of women that his desire not to be cuckolded leads him straight into cuckoldry.

Pretending to gain the confidences of Agnes’ ardent suitor, Horace (Damian Lewis), Arnolphe watches in alarm as fate brings together the youthful lovers whom he has conspired to keep apart. As Kent’s telling final image makes clear, “School for Wives” is a play about the imprisonment of women that ultimately lands Arnolphe behind bars, enclosed within an unworkable moral code of which he’s less perpetrator than victim.

The play imparts a strict lesson, but the production is anything but didactic. Kent, due to make his American directing debut in April when the Diana Rigg “Medea” transfers to Broadway, finds both the savagery and the satire in a text in which Moliere, as usual, folds his own moderate point of view into the leading man’s confidant, Chrysalde (Bernard Gallagher).

Arnolphe, by contrast, is all extremes, and the terrierlike McDiarmid — Almeida co-artistic director alongside Kent — has a ball snapping and snarling his way through the delicious blows that are dealt to his cunning.

Agnes, in turn, is re-imagined not as a guileless blank but as an innocent who is savvy enough to reject as “gloomy, dutiful and strict” her guardian’s view of marriage. Cranach’s painting of “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” is glimpsed through her upper-floor window, but it’s the fallen Arnolphe who here eats the apple (literally).

Agnes embodies a poise that no amount of deception can despoil, and Fielding’s performance — at once open-faced and wise — proves a worthy follow-up to her career-making Thomasina in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.”

Among the rest of the cast, Linal Haft and Carol Macready provide lowbrow rumbustious comedy as a pair of servants who turn out not to be quite the thugs Arnolphe had bargained for. But then the entire evening is about subverting expectation: Who would have guessed, for example, from its rain-soaked opening scene and climax that this exuberant “School for Wives” would end up letting in so much sun?

The School for Wives

Almeida Theatre, London; 300 seats; $23 top

Production

An Almeida Theatre presentation of the Moliere comedy (translated by Richard Wilbur) in five acts, no intermission. Directed by Jonathan Kent.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Peter J. Davison; lighting, Peter Mumford; music, Jonathan Dove; sound, Alistair Goolden. Opened, reviewed Dec. 7, 1993.

Cast

Arnolphe - Ian McDiarmid
Agnes - Emma Fielding
Chrysalde - Bernard Gallagher
Horace - Damian Lewis
Alain - Linal Haft
Georgette - Carol Macready
With: Charles Lewsen, Simon Carter, Richard Addison.
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