Jaclyn Backhaus’s Wives, at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of Margot Bordelon, is a raucous, funny, well-acted, and well-intentioned production that suffers from intermittent heavy-handedness and whose four distinct parts don’t fully cohere. The final of the four vignettes that comprise the 80-minute play tries to wrangle the previous three stories, which originated as ideas for three separate plays, into a harmonious symmetry, but it only muddies the waters so that Wives ends up feeling like partially thought-out ideas awaiting fuller exploration.
The conceit, at least of the first three vignettes, is to look at the wives or lovers of “great men,” but not through “the visions made by men.” The opening story takes the audience to 16th-century France, and the court of King Henri II (Sathya Sridharan), where his wife, Queen Catherine de Medici (Purva Bedi), comes into conflict with his mistress (Aadya Bedi), as the foppish Henri prepares for a jousting tournament. The tone is postmodern and silly, using contemporary, colloquial language: the characters are aware of their status as characters in a historical setting, which generates many laughs, as do the antics of the cook/narrator, portrayed by Adina Verson, and Purva Bedi’s sharp, foul-mouthed Catherine: “what a fuckhead” she says about her late husband (Henri’s jousting tournament doesn’t go well).
But this non-realistic style seems to tempt Backhaus into spelling out the premise too explicitly: the two women decide to bond, not fight, after Henri’s demise, but this isn’t shown, just explained—“Wouldn’t it be more interesting if we actually grew to like each other?... A symbiosis … a subversion,” etc.
The second, and most successful, piece begins with a wonderfully pompous and affected reading by Ernest Hemingway (Sridharan) of his self-written eulogy. Then Hemingway’s three surviving wives get together in mourning black to drink rum and roast the not-so-dearly departed, parody his writing style, and reflect on his view of women: “Because like what were women to him but a high pitched series of holes with blinking eyes,” says Hadley Richardson (Purva Bedi), the “First Wife.” Mary Walsh Hemingway (Verson), who was married to Hemingway at the time of his suicide, is reluctant to go in this mocking direction, but eventually has the realization—which she repeats like an ecstatic mantra—that “he was shitty!”
These women are subject to the male gaze not just by history but by their husband’s own self-serving literary representations. Their appropriating and subverting of his style, which ultimately reduces the multitudes contained in a woman to “a manner, a wisp of fragrance,” is simultaneously funny, poignant, and defiant.
The third vignette is set in early 1920s India, and stretches the definition of “wives” to include anti-imperialist solidarity: the Maharaja Madho Singh II (Sridharan), the Maharani (Aadya Bedi), and the “witch” and “concubine” Roop Rai (Purva Bedi) are all “wives,” much to the horror of the narrator, a hilariously caricatured English colonial official, played by Verson. Despite the laughter generated, the connective thread of Wives begins to fray in this piece. There is also the distracting and strange decision to have the Maharaja voiced as Jimmy Stewart, and the unnecessary lapsing into parodic millennial speak, as when the Maharaja comments of his child, “omg she is so the best babe.”
The final piece, which pays homage to Virginia Woolf’s masterly A Room of One’s Own, takes place at contemporary Oxbridge (the blend of Oxford and Cambridge used by Woolf), is again narrated by Verson, this time as a college sophomore and the president of Witches of Oxbridge University. A student named Swarn (Aadya Bedi) joins the club, and the story becomes her quest for self-validation: the witches’ cauldron produces a “constellation of ancestors,” specifically her maternal grandparents, both named Swarn, whom she never met. The story that the two elder Swarns (Sridharan and Purva Bedi) tell is one of arranged marriage and immigration from India to California. The mantra for the young Swarn becomes “everything about you is right.”
This piece culminates with a cosmic monologue by Swarn, which is intended as uplifting but feels overwritten and muddled. The themes forced into play in this finale don’t perfectly align with the earlier pieces, and so the production ends with the sense that several different projects have been squeezed together and then told to cohere by a sentimental and confusing conclusion. At this point, the witty, zany, and empowering fun of Wives’ best sequences seems like a distant memory.
Wives runs through Oct. 6 at Playwrights Horizons (416 W 42nd St.). Evening performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and at 7 p.m. Sunday; matinees are 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. To purchase tickets, call (212) 564-1235 or visit www.playwrightshorizons.org.