Director Mark Lamos dresses up his actors in "The School for Wives" at the La Jolla Playhouse to suggest silent-movie archetypes. Arnolphe (Gerry Bamman) makes us think of Chaplin, with his derby hat and mustache. His ward, Agnes (Barbara Howard), might be Mary Pickford.
The gimmick doesn't particularly serve the story. One can't imagine Charlie holding Mary prisoner in a country house until she is old enough to go to bed with him--the wretched Arnolphe's strategy for guaranteeing himself a strictly fresh wife. When Bamman soulfully sniffs a rose at the end of Act I, it's got nothing to do with the character he's been playing.
But the device does free Moliere from the feathers and ribbons of the typical period production, bringing the characters a little closer to us, yet allowing them to inhabit a stylized world where conversations tend to rhyme. (The Richard Wilbur translation is used.)
As an environment, it will do, particularly since the values of Moliere's comedy are so strongly in place. English-language productions of Moliere tend to be either too confectionary, as if he were merely an entertainer, or too grim, as if he were a crank.
This "School for Wives" has real laughter and real pain. Moreover, it suggests that they are interconnected: that laughter inevitably needs a victim, and that every man in his time must play the fool, with as much grace as he can muster. Arnolphe thinks he can avoid this process by raising a wife who will be too stupid to give him a moment's unease, his definition of "virtue" in a woman.
The laugh is on him, and Moliere's plot still raises merriment at La Jolla. Even the unlikely bits seem folded into the fun. Bamman's contribution as an actor is to show that (a) Arnolphe deserves to be the butt of the joke for having tried to keep his wife a child forever; and that (b) it hurts like fire to be revealed as a fool, even when one deserves it.
It's a splendidly fussy performance, all infantile self-regard and self-defeating calculation. One was reminded of Tony Randall at his best in "The Odd Couple." But while Randall talks about doing the classics, it's the Gerry Bammans who are out there doing them. Bravo.
Howard as Agnes hangs back a long while, but that is part of the strategy. When it comes time for her to reveal what she has learned in this "School for Wives," it's devastating. (Feminists should take a look at this play.)
Campbell Scott plays the young man who so fancies Agnes that he can hardly keep on the ground when he thinks of her. It's a charming performance, and we're chagrined when, having won her, Scott goes off with the boys at the end of the play--a darker moment than seems called for, even in a comedy that doesn't shy away from being harsh on those who deserve it. Moliere was a realist about marriage, but he did believe in young love.
James Avery pays Arnolphe's reasonable friend Chrysalde (he looks a bit like Fatty Arbuckle). William Roesch and Robert Cornthwaite come aboard at the end with a smile, and Olivia Virgil Harper and Arthur Hanket get in some good slapstick as the comic servants, with a loaf of French bread substituting for the traditional thwacker.
John Arnone's set is slightly comical (a door in the woods outside Arnolphe's country place) and Peter A. Kaczorowski's lighting is intentionally downcast. Martin Pakledinaz did the derbies and spats.
'THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES' Moliere's comedy, at La Jolla Playhouse. Director Mark Lamos. Translation Richard Wilbur. Set John Arnone. Costumes Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting Peter A. Kaczorowski. Sound John Kilgore. Stage manager T. R. Martin. Vocal coach Susan Leigh. Assistant director Ralph Jones. Assistant to the director Ron Nakaraha. East Coast casting Stanley Soble, Jason La Padura. West Coast casting Richard Pagano, Sharon Braly. With Gerry Bamman, James Avery, Arthur Hanket, Olivia Virgil Harper, Barbara Howard, Campbell Scott, Andrew Weems, William Roesch, Robert Cornthwaite.
Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets $16-$20. Closes Sept. 12. Warren Theatre, UC San Diego, La Jolla. (619) 534-3960.