"Good Off-Off Broadway theater is like a gourmet meal, and bad Off-Off Broadway theater is like a fast-food meal; the first doesn't stay with you long enough, and the second doesn't leave you soon enough." The above epigram is not featured in William Wycherley's witticism-filled Restoration sex farce, The Country Wife, now being presented by HoNkBarK! and Vital Theatre Company, but it certainly does apply. This feast of manners and innuendo presents two tasty acts over the course of three hours. It may not provide much food for thought, but it does sate one's appetite for bawdy humor and heaving bosoms.
While in France, an English scoundrel named Harry Horner hits upon an idea: if rumors are spread that he has suffered an impotence-causing accident, husbands will trust him around their virtuous (and unsatisfied) wives, leading to plenty of opportunities for no-strings-attached assignations. Upon his return to England, Horner entrusts the "secret" to the elderly doctor Quack to spread to the local gossips so that all of London is aware of his supposed condition.
Horner's friends—the amiable Harcourt, the lewd Dorilant, and the über-fop Sparkish—are appalled at Horner's loss of manhood and newfound revulsion toward women. Sparkish is improbably engaged to Alithea, whose wealth is the rake's only reason to wed her. This union is challenged by Harcourt, who falls in love with the affianced lady and sets about to woo her right under Sparkish's oblivious, powdered nose.
Trouble is also brewing for the jealous and extremely middle-class Mr. Pinchwife, who fears his marriage to the lovely country bumpkin Margery may be compromised by the pleasures of London society and flirtations from Horner and his compatriots. Having been out of town courting his wife, Pinchwife hasn't heard of Horner's affliction, and, in his efforts to keep Margery away from city vices, he leads her right to them—and to Horner.
Wycherley's tale, written in 1675, is full of the usual period messages: the middle classes are too moralistic and judgmental, and the upper classes care only about fun and appearances. While the author never met a clever quip or double entendre he didn't like, he smartly balances that with entertaining characters and a satisfyingly knotty mass of stories. His words work well in the mouths of the cast members—more than half are Actors' Equity members, and their region-free pronunciations and classical intonations sell the material. (Congratulations, vocal coach Linda Jones, on a job well done!)
Richard Haratine is delightful as the rascal Horner; the actor wisely avoids making his character sympathetic, yet at the same time he seduces us to his side. (Speaking of seduction, Haratine's verbal conquest of Laura LeBleu's Lady Fidget is sexier than anything with Fabio on the cover.)
LeBleu and Kristin Price (Margery Pinchwife) are two of the show's producers, which normally makes one skeptical of the casting process as well as the actor or actress in question's performance. Happily, both ladies are well cast and are clearly relishing the comedy in their roles. LeBleu makes a haughty and naughty Lady Fidget, and Price is adorable as the socially clumsy and high-spirited Margery. Special kudos must also go to Brian Linden, who plays Sparkish as an over-enunciating, ingratiating idiot, but with enough self-awareness and a morsel of realism to keep him from being too cartoonish.
Karl A. Ruckdeschel's splendid costumes are detailed and effective—particularly the towers of pink ruffles and silver embroidery for Sparkish's and Alithea's respective wedding ensembles. Set designer Brian Garber swathes the stage in burgundy fabric and open gilt frames, which act as windows and, with a tug of a painted shade, portraits. (The opulently dressed set's only drawback was that sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between locations.) Clearly, director John Ficarra should also have been credited as the show's choreographer; there is a lot of stylized movement (elaborate bowing, "fan language") that, when effective, is both entertaining and an extra bit of characterization.
If new plays are the children of the theater, then classical plays are the elders. We must continue to nurture the young in order to propagate the art form, while respecting and listening to the wisdom of the old so we understand why we want theater to flourish. The Country Wife is less like a stern grandfather and more like that unmarried great-uncle who sneaks you a drink at holidays and teaches you how to play poker for money. He's not exactly a good influence, but he's a whole lot of fun.