Friday, September 20, 2019

74 (2019-2020): Review: WIVES (seen September 19, 2019)

(THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE is now a book--two books, in fact. No, make that three books! The first covers the 2012-2013 season, when, at the age of 72, I began reviewing plays. It contains full reviews and shorter comments on 150 shows, as well as a brief memoir on how I got into this critical mess. The 2013-2014 season follows, with 300 substantial reviews, so many it had to be published in two volumes (May to November; December to April). Both are available at affordable prices (paperback and Kindle) at Christmas is coming so why not consider them as gifts for your theatreloving friends and family? Click here for more information.)

"To Have and to Hold"

Jaclyn Backhaus, whose Men on Boats and India Pale Ale impressed and entertained me, is back with Wives, an 80-minute play I found categorically less impressive and entertaining. Admittedly, many in the audience laughed, befuddling this stone-faced reviewer. Like Backhaus’s earlier work, it reflects the author’s interest in issues of identity, principally gender-related, with a playful mixture of the historical and contemporary, but in a far-shakier humorous, structural, emotional, and intellectually accessible context. 

Aadya Purvi, Sathya Sridharan, Purva Bedi. All photos: Joan Marcus.
According to an interview with Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, in whose Peter Jay Sharp Theater Wives is playing, Backhaus’s four-part play was originally four separate playlets that she decided only late in her process to combine into a single work. This happened, she says, “when I decided that all these parts live together because they’re all about women trying to live for themselves, but who are unable to because they only exist in our history and in their own minds in relation to the main man in their lives.” All well and good, only that doesn’t really describe the play I saw.

Each of the four parts is set in a different time period and location: 1) the Chateau de Chenonceaux, Loire Valley, France, during the time of Catherine de Medici’s (1519-1589) marriage (1547-1559) to King Henri II; 2) Ketchum, Idaho, in 1961, at the funeral of author Ernest Hemingway, attended by his two, still-living ex-wives (a third had died) and his widow; 3) the Madhavendra Place, Rajasthan, India, in the 1920s, during the declining years of the Raj; and 4) Oxbridge University, the fictional British university imagined by Virginia Woolf, in the present day. Four actors, three of South Asian ancestry (for reasons described in the interview but too complex to go into here), play different roles in each scene

The first begins with a goofy French cook (Adina Verson), speaking in a cockeyed Cockney accent (because, says Backhaus, the creative team considered it hilarious). Like a souped-up Julia Child, she demonstrates how to prepare chicken. Soon, though, she’ll be a participant in a farcically overcooked sequence concerning the rivalry for Henri’s (Sathya Sridharan) affections between his wife, Queen Cathy (Purva Bedi), and his rumbustious mistress, Diane de Poitiers (Aadya Bedi). After Henri dies from his jousting wounds, and his estate must be settled, the jousting women find their way to a rapprochement. If you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em, so to speak.
Purva Bedi, Aadya Bedi. 
Whatever antipatriarchal theme this ridiculously inflated scene may have regarding the way women have been overshadowed by their husbands, is drowned in the wife-mistress rivalry as well as in the clownishly exaggerated behavior, ahistorical language and contemporary slang (“fuckery” being a Backhaus fave), and mugging.

A few degrees less broad, but still over-the-top, is the Hemingway scene, in which Big Ern (Sridharan) delivers his own eulogy. Then, his first wife, Hadley Richardson (Purva Bedi), third wife, Martha Gelhorn (Aadya Bedi), and widow, Mary (Verson), all dressed in black, drink booze and dish about the late writer, even taking turns mimicking his writing style. (Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, referenced in the scene, died in 1951.)
Adina Verson, Aadya Bedi, Purva Bedi.
Backhaus wants to satirize how Hemingway’s success was linked to what he’d gotten from these women, but, despite their bitchiness, and Mary’s realization that he was “shitty,” just what was deleterious in his doing so—or what it’s symbolic implications for us are—is left to our imagination. All were accomplished women, Gelhorn in particular making her mark as one of the top foreign correspondents of her day. Hemingway may not have been a model husband but the scene illuminates little but bad feelings. And even if Hemingway was a chauvinist and terrible spouse, why must that implicate other husbands?
Aadya Bedi, Adina Verson.
We move further away from the titular subject of wives in the third section, which mocks outrageously narrowminded British colonial attitudes toward Indian culture. The caricaturish villain here is a snootily accented British official, Mr. Patterson (the comically versatile Verson). The bug up his butt is the ministrations of a concubine cum witch named Roop Rai (Purva Bedi), whose healing powers benefit Maharaja Madho Singh II (Sridharan). 

Even the ruler’s wife, the Maharani (Aadya Bedi), supports Roop Rai, who uses her powers to overcome the officious foreigner, someone who believes her hold on the maharaja is a danger to colonial power. Once more, though, the emphasis on larger-than-life comedic tropes trumps significant thematic points.
Sathya Sridharan, Purva Bedi, Aadya Bedi.
Finally, we move yet further away from “wives” territory to what begins as yet another farcical sketch, in which a young witch, a college undergrad (Verson), has obtained a room at Oxbridge University, to recruit other witches for her campus club. Upstage hangs the school’s only portrait of an important woman, Virginia Woolf. 
Adina Verson, Aadya Bedi.
Woolf’s famous feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own, which noted the constraints on women writers, becomes the inspiration for a young woman, Swarn (Aadya Bedi), with low self-esteem, to be cast under a spell by the witch. It enables her to abandon the play’s previous comic foolery for a poignant, stream-of-consciousness, freeform, elusive, poetic, and vastly overstuffed journey toward full awareness of her existence as a woman. In this surrealistic sequence, she’s supported by a visitation of the Indian immigrant grandparents (Sridharan and Purva Bedi)—the grandmother being the scene’s only “wife”—who died before she was born.
Aadya Bedi.
Barely any of this muddled play tickled my chauvinistic funnybone, stirred my patriarchal emotions, or stimulated my caveman intellect. In fact, I would have been unable to sit through it without the vivacious talents of its four actors. And, while I was uncomfortable with director Margot Bordelon’s insistence on Monty Pythonesque-broadness, I appreciated her imaginative staging. Also offering worthwhile contributions are Reid Thompson’s wood-paneled set, whose walls allow for locale-changing images, the colorful costumes of Valérie Thérèse Bart, the versatile lighting of Amith Chandrashaker, and the effective sound and music of Kate Marvin.

In the above-cited interview, provided as a handout, Jaclyn Backhaus makes valuable points about what she thinks her play is saying. Unfortunately, there’s more to be gained from her stated intentions than from how effectively she communicates them in Wives.

Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 6