"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.|
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.|
|Adina Verson, 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.
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 6