Review: ‘The School for Wives’

La Jolla Playhouse brings new zing to Moliere's classic comedy with this modern, slangy translation. Mark Wendland's clever set design provides the perfect backdrop to this tale of a proud man determined not to be cuckolded and his constantly failing plans. Ample interaction with the audience helps to point up continued relevance of Moliere's themes.

La Jolla Playhouse brings new zing to Moliere’s classic comedy with this modern, slangy translation. Mark Wendland’s clever set design provides the perfect backdrop to this tale of a proud man determined not to be cuckolded and his constantly failing plans. Ample interaction with the audience helps to point up continued relevance of Moliere’s themes.

Tom McGowan is terrif as Arnolf, who believes “an educated woman is the devil’s tool.” To protect her virtue, he has given over his young ward, Agnes (Michi Barall, the very picture of wide-eyed innocence), to nuns to raise with the charge that she receive no education at all. Agnes can sew, and read a bit, but the real world is a mystery to her, which is just as Arnolf wants it.

Arnolf is stunned to learn, then, that his naive ward, whom he keeps locked away in the charge of his equally dim servants (Katie Grant and Jacques C. Smith, both very funny), has managed to fall in love with a young man who passed the house one day and saw her sewing on the balcony.

Most of the play’s action concerns the dueling machinations of Arnolf and the young suitor Horatio (Scott Hudson, blithely self-confident). It’s the usual stuff of farce, but Moliere’s biting observations, well-rendered in this translation, combine with excellent perfs to make it first-rate.

Neel Keller’s staging is innovative and imaginative. From the beginning, when a boy rides a skateboard across the stage and then lifts it up to reveal “Act 1” written on the bottom, Keller makes a game of announcing each act. He also consistently reminds us of the play’s origins, as when accordionist Louis Fanucchi and the servants open with a rendition of “You Really Got Me” — in French.

Most of the performances are of the same high standard as McGowan, Barall and Hudson. Rodney Scott Hudson provides the voice of reason as Arnolf’s friend Chrisaldo, always right, always ignored.

The main drawback of this high-energy production is Allison Reeds’ costumes: They offer no stylistic unity and, rather than looking original, appear simply to be trying too hard. Some are downright ugly.

The School for Wives

La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum; 394 seats; $39 top

Production

The La Jolla Playhouse presents a comedy in two acts by Moliere, translated and adapted by Paul Schmidt. Director, Neel Keller.

Creative

Sets, Mark Wendland; costumes, Allison Reeds; lighting, James F. Ingalls; original music/music direction/sound design, Michael Roth; dramaturgs, Gregory Gunter, Beth Frank. Opened, reviewed June 15, 1997; runs through July 13. Running time: 1 hour, 55 min.

Cast

Cast: Tom McGowan (Arnolf), Michi Barall (Agnes), Scott Hudson (Horatio), Rodney Scott Hudson (Chrisaldo), Jacques C. Smith (Alain), Katie Grant (Georgette), Louis Fanucchi (Oronte/Musician), Kevin Berntson (Notary), Ira Marks (Enrico).
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