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Vol. LXI, No. 17
 
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
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Music/Theater

COURTSHIP AND CUCKOLDERY: The ardent Harcourt (Jason Diggs) declares his love for the virtuous Alithea (Kate Miller) despite her imminent marriage to his friend Sparkish, in Theatre Intime's production of William Wycherley's "The Country Wife," playing through April 28 at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

The Country Wife: Hypocrisy, Cuckoldry, Disguises and Dissimulations Abound in Intime Updating of Restoration Comedy on Sex and Marriage

Donald Gilpin

Wycherley’s indecency,” opined Thomas Babington Macaulay in reference to The Country Wife (1675) and its playwright, “is protected against the critics as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe because it is too filthy to handle, and too noisome even to approach.” One hundred fifty years after the British historian’s disparag- ing comments and three hundred thirty-two years after the creation of William Wycherley’s satiric masterpiece itself, The Country Wife remains problematic for both play producers and critics.

Banished from the stage from 1753 until the 1920s because of its sex jokes and risqué subject matter, The Country Wife even today is potentially shocking with its lewdness and double entendres. But even more challenging for contemporary audiences may be the sophisticated satire, moral ambiguity, and idiosyncrasy of Wycherley’s world of aristocratic sexual politics.

In Theatre Intime’s current production of The Country Wife, updated to a contemporary Princeton University setting, the scandalous behavior of the Restoration’s anti-Puritan 17th century — and its preoccupation with sex, social etiquette, affectation, and romantic love — translates readily to the 21st century. Many particulars of this comedy, however, do not fit credibly into the context of the undergraduate campus environment. The world of slightly older upscale, stylish New York City society, for example, might have provided greater credibility and comic possibilities.

Director Will Ellerbe, a Princeton University junior, has streamlined this Country Wife with judicious cutting of lines, and elimination of some minor characters and parts of scenes, though the tangled, multifaceted plot, at 2½ hours running time, could benefit from further trimming. In one clever abridgment, the versatile Stephen Strenio plays three different roles, even donning a wig (and relying on the audience’s suspension of disbelief in his bushy beard) to play a female role.

The witty dialogue, the plot complications and the extremes of eccentric adult behavior make this a difficult play to stage. Some members of this undergraduate cast are more successful than others in fully embodying these larger-than-life characters, without overplaying or otherwise missing the mark.

"The Country Wife" will run through April 26-28, with performances at 8 p.m. and a 2 p.m. matinee on April 28, at the Hamilton Murray Theater. For tickets call (609) 258-1742 or order online at www.princeton.edu/utickets. For more information visit the Intime website at www.theatreintime.org.

Particularly adept and utterly convincing in this broadly comical, two-dimensional style are Andy Hoover as Pinchwife, the domineering, easily cuckolded husband — especially effective in his hilarious asides to the audience, and Pete Walkingshaw as Sparkish, the fatuous, supremely self-confident fop. Jason Diggs as Harcourt and Kate Miller as Alithea are focused and engaging in the “straight” roles as the sincere lovers, who set the standard for true love and morality that other characters in the play fall so far short of. Carolyn Edelstein as Margery Pinchwife, the young “country wife,” wins over the audience in her clashes with her overbearing husband and her adventurous journey from innocence to experience.

“Your women of honor, as you call ‘em,” says the scheming Horner (Arthur Burkle) in the opening scene, “are only chary of their reputations, not their persons, and ‘tis scandal they would avoid, not men.” On the basis of this understanding, spreads the rumor that he is a eunuch so that all the husbands will think him a safe companion for their wives. He can thus happily seduce all the women without any suspicion from their husbands or any blemish on the ladies’ reputations.

Sir Jasper Fidget (William Busbee) is the first to succumb to Horner (whose name refers to both the horns of the cuckold and to the horns of the devil), as Fidget delivers not just his wife (Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay), but a whole “virtuous gang,” including his sister Dainty Fidget (Stacy Testa) and a third eager society lady, Mrs. Squeamish (Courtney Toombs), who turns out to be not so squeamish at all!

Dissimulations multiply, as do literal disguises, all culminating in the notoriously clever “china” scene, where Mrs. Fidget, Horner, and Sir Jasper Fidget discuss Horner’s “china” collection, with everyone, except Sir Jasper, fully aware of the sexual double entendres and the lewd subject matter.

As the audience watches Horner outsmarting the gullible husbands and seducing their hypocritical and lascivious wives, two other plots simultaneously unfold. Mr. Pinchwife has brought his very innocent and very young wife Margery to the city. The harder he tries to shield her from the surrounding corruptions, the more eager she becomes to experience the pleasures of society and city life. In a brilliantly humorous letter-writing scene Margery out-maneuvers her misogynistic, abusive, and wildly jealous husband, just when he thinks he has reined her in by forcing her to write a dismissive epistle to Horner.

Both Horner and Pinchwife, each thoroughly reprehensible in his own way, would be offensive or even pitiful in a more serious play, but here the former serves as a devastating instrument of satire, ensuring that the affected, the mercenary, and the foolish meet their comeuppance, and the latter as the butt of this comedy and satire.

The third interwoven plot portrays Harcourt’s transformation into a serious, sincere lover, as he pursues the virtuous Alithea and wins her away from his foolish, fashion-conscious rival Sparkish. Harcourt and Alithea eventually achieve an exemplary marriage of mutual understanding and affection.

The numerous scenes, spanning two days, are set at Horner’s lodgings, Pinchwife’s lodgings, and on Prospect Avenue, but, despite a colorful backdrop, the production values here are a bit stark and shabby. A door falling off its hinges and a couple of slip-ups in special lighting effects on Saturday night caused some distractions to the main action. All in all, something is lost in the Princeton undergraduate dormitory setting, which does not lend itself to the stylistic extravagances in dress and décor afforded by the original production, situated in elegant, aristocratic Restoration London.

A 17th century diarist, John Evelyn, clearly recognized the genius of his contemporary William Wycherley and the timelessness that makes the world of The Country Wife a recognizable one many centuries later: As long as men are false and women vain, Whilst gold continues to be virtue’s bane, In pointed satire Wycherley shall reign.

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