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The Country Wife

This wonderfuly bawdy Restoration comedy receives an estimable new production. logo
Laura LeBleu, Richard Haratine, Bridgette Shaw,
and Janna Kefalas in The Country Wife
(© Sergio Reynoso)
The Country Wife must have been really hot stuff back in 1675, when it was first performed. William Wycherley's bawdy Restoration comedy centers around a smooth operator named Harry Horner, who allows a rumor that he's impotent to be spread far and wide -- the better to gain lustful access to ladies of society who may not be quite as proper, virtuous, and faithful to their husbands as they seem. The play is filled with comic conventions that were already old in the 17th century, but this is certainly not meant to say they're no longer funny.

The excellent new staging of The Country Wife at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre -- a co-production of two theater companies, HoNkBarK! and Vital -- proves that there's still a lot of comic juice and erotic bite left in the old girl. To begin with, the names of the characters (Mrs. Squeamish, Lady Fidget, Quack) are priceless. At one point, there's a vivid description of a French kiss. And there are oodles of double entendres that retain the power to titillate, as when the about-to-be cuckolded Mr. Pinchwife tells his spouse in reference to Horner, "He's coming in to you the back way."

Let it be noted that the length of the piece will be challenging to many of today's theatergoers. At two hours and 45 minutes (not counting the intermission), The Country Wife makes its points again and again as the complications of the plot unravel. Credit director John Ficarra for keeping the pace brisk and lively, and also for helping the actors achieve just the right style -- highly presentational, but not over-arch -- in their performances.

As Horner, Richard Haratine uses his beautiful, well-trained voice and expert body language to get the most of the witty text. (I particularly loved his delivery of the final line: "He who aims by women to be priz'd, first by the men, you see, must be despis'd.") This fine actor also manages the neat trick of performing broadly in heavy makeup and ornate costumes without coming across as "gay" in the modern sense -- something that can't be said of Brian Linden, who goes a bit too far in his portrayal of the fop Sparkish.

Among the many other standouts in the company are Kristin Price as Mrs. Pinchwife; Ray Rodriguez as her husband, the cuckold (don't you love that word?); Steve Kuhel as Horner's pal Harcourt; and Linda Jones as Alithea, the most admirable personage of the lot. Robert Lehrer as Quack and Maurice Edwards as Sir Jasper Fidget contribute jewel-like characterizations, although both had obvious trouble remembering some of their lines at the show's very first preview, which I attended per the publicist's invitation.

The design elements of the show are impressive, to say the least. Brian Garber's simple-yet-sumptuous set features maroon walls covered by reproductions of period paintings; additionally, empty picture frames hang from above, and these are used to great effect in the tableau that starts the play on a marvelously creative note. As the action progresses from scene to scene, more paintings on the equivalent of window shades are pulled down to variously fill the empty frames. Continuing this clever conceit, the three-piece orchestra is situated within a large frame onstage.

The wigs, by The Broadway Wig Company and Irina Mougunova, are fabulous; and Karl A. Ruckdeschel's costumes are gorgeous, especially the outlandish get-ups he has provided for Sparkish. Nathan Elsener's lighting is warm and rich. Dana Haynes has composed some delightful, period-appropriate music, but though the harpsichordist and the flutist play well, the performance I attended was marred by some appalling sounds from the guy on flugelhorn. Perhaps this issue and the flubbed lines will have been addressed by the time you read this, but even if not, a few mistakes shouldn't deter audiences from checking out The Country Wife.

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