The School for Husbands Michael Langham staged these two Moliere comedies with Brian Bedford to considerable acclaim last summer at Canada’s Stratford Festival. The three chief changes in the Roundabout redux are a reversal of the order of presentation, the replacement of Roberta Maxwell with Suzanne Bertish and redesign of the set for “The School for Husbands.”
Bedford is always a welcome presence on the New York stage — he was last seen in Langham’s Jazz Age, Paris-set production of “Timon of Athens” for the National Actors Theater in November 1993 (another replication from Stratford). These plays are a delight, particularly in Richard Wilbur’s typically ticklish translations — ticklish in that his elegant rhyming couplets are full of internal surprises, detonating minor explosions of laughter throughout the evening even when they aren’t being delivered with the utmost care.
In “The School for Husbands” Bedford plays one of Moliere’s favorite targets for skewering — the smug, self-satisfied patriarch who lords it over everyone else as he’s being sunk by his own sanctimony. To his brother Ariste (Remak Ramsay), Sganarelle (Bedford) boasts that the strict, protected upbringing he has provided his ward Isabelle (Patricia Dunnock) has made her a paragon of womanhood, so cherishing of her guardian that they are to be wed. Ariste, guardian to Isabelle’s sister Leonor (Cheryl Gaysunas), has taken a more liberal tack, trusting Leonor to be honorable and marry well.
Of course, Isabelle has her sights set on handsome Valere (Malcolm Gets), and she craftily manages to turn Sganarelle into a kind of love shuttlecock, taking veiled messages between the lovers until it’s too late. Bertish spurs the action with plenty of proto-feminist observations as Isabelle’s servant, and it’s all amusing, if harmless, comeuppance.
Bedford’s wigline nearly wrecks the illusion, and his intermittently singsong delivery of the couplets threatens to capsize the humor. Moreover, a mundane set , consisting of three high white doors outlined in gold, drains off some of the comic energy.
Nevertheless, Ramsay, Bertish, Gets, et al., rise to the level demanded. And after the intermission the company seemed nearly flawlessly knit together for “The Imaginary Cuckold.” Set in a provincial hamlet, it’s a more standard farce involving miscommunications among two couples: Sganarelle (same name, same actor — Bedford — different part) and his big-haired wife (Bertish), and young Celie (Gaysunas) and her intended, Lelie (David Aaron Baker). They’re all convinced they’re being betrayed until a wise maid (Dunnock) untangles it all.
Looking for all the world like athatched armadillo as he dons armor to take on Lelie, Bedford here is at once hilarious and endearing. The set, centered around Sganarelle’s tiny domicile — the 18th-century version of a trailer home — serves well.
Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes and Richard Nelson’s lighting for both plays are first-rate.
Still, there’s something slightly perfunctory about the evening. Langham’s staging is picturesque, but it’s not involving, and as a result, we’re never really drawn into these affairs. Competently played, “The Moliere Comedies” seems a bit by-the-numbers. Full of laughs, it lacks fire.