Husbands throughout the centuries have used various strategies to keep their wives from cheating. In Moliere’s “School for Wives,” egotistical 42-year-old Arnolphe hatches a seemingly foolproof plan to foil adultery — making sure his bride-to-be of 17 remains mindlessly dependent and bragging to a friend, “I told the nuns what means must be employed, to keep her growing mind a perfect void.” The pleasure of “School for Wives,” in a lively new version at A Noise Within, is watching him squash her intellectual growth only to learn that “the woman whose naivete keeps me in stitches” is far more clever and emotionally adventurous than he suspects.
As Arnolphe — costumed with ornate hilarity by Nadine Parkos in ruffled shirt, jeweled vest and knee-length satin maroon pants — Robertson Dean matches his rapid-fire line readings with unrestrained physicality, heaving himself on the floor and giving out so much energy that his face turns alarmingly red. Dean’s skillful interpretation of an unsympathetic character floods light on the pathological insecurity behind Arnolphe’s machinations, so we understand his chauvinistic cruelties without hating him.
This is particularly vital since the play, despite periodic appearances by other characters, is virtually a one-man show. Dean, under Sabin Epstein’s driving direction, carries the production on his back, providing an endless repertoire of reactions and thunderstruck double takes.
These increase when his young friend Horace (Scott Jay) confesses love for the beautiful Agnes (Noel True), who just happens to be Arnolphe’s intended. Since Arnolphe has changed his name to the lordly title of Monsieur de la Souche, Horace doesn’t realize that both names belong to the same man, and he repeatedly confides every detail of his passionate connection with Agnes. Dean is at his best, fighting back apoplectic frenzies while listening to Horace unknowingly label him a lame, ridiculous, jealous old fool.
Jay’s portrait of Horace ably captures Moliere’s humor, although his artificially silly, pencil-thin mustache and excessive rouge interfere with the romantic illusion. His boyish devotion doesn’t pose sufficient threat to the powerfully imposing Arnolphe, so the issue of whether he and Agnes get together at the end rings less urgently than it should.
In subdued contrast to the other highly charged performers, True gives Agnes an incisive delicacy. Some of the line readings surrounding her are too fast and hyperactive, but True always maintains a self-assured subtlety. When Arnolphe demands to know if she loves him, she answers sweetly, “Alas, I don’t,” and as he rages that women are “foolish and illogical in thought …. Their souls are weak, their characters are bad,” we see, in her portrayal, a genuine depth and substance that makes Arnolphe ludicrously superficial by comparison.
While True’s Agnes is the gentle spine of the plot, Arnolphe’s two falsely flattering servants, Alain (Ben Messmer) and Georgette (Brooke Parks), are the slapstick specialists. Both stand out in a sequence where Arnolphe wants to hear criticism of his youthful rival and they play it two ways by pronouncing Horace a “fathead” and “impudent ass” while staring straight at their employer. Stephen Rockwell has a scene-stealing turn as a frustrated notary.
Comedies like these, with their convoluted twists and far-fetched solutions, require a philosophical voice of reason. Alan Blumenfeld, portraying Arnolphe’s friend Chrysalde, amusingly expresses an opposing viewpoint when commenting on cuckoldry, “One might welcome it in certain situations.”
Angela Balogh Calin’s scenic design is simple but striking, with glitteringly atmospheric chandelier, gold-sprayed chairs and radiating gold-blue striped floors that suggest the Louis XIV era. Four time Emmy-winning composer Laura Karpman contributes playfully melodic cues that sustain momentum.