Photo by Ken Howard/SCRAny successful man will tell you the best way to keep a lover is to get her young, cloister her and marry her before she knows better. That's the theory of Arnolphe, the protagonist in Molière's The School for Wives.Philosopher-cum-blowhard Arnolphe (Dakin Matthews) is certain his plan for female domination will prove itself with beautiful Agnes, a young woman he purchased at age four from a poor widow. Raised uneducated and completely unaware of the world, Agnes comes of age. Just days before Arnolphe intends to propose marriage, however, Agnes sees a young man from her balcony window and falls in love. The rest of Molière's 1662 proto-feminist dissection of men's foibles and insecurities centers on Arnolphe's attempts to subvert the couple's burgeoning romance, which only succeed in bringing them closer together.
Ranjit Bolt's 1997 verse translation is as good as these things get. It's an endlessly hilarious rendering that captures the verbal badinage that was Molière's modus operandi. What's missing is the physical abandon to accompany the often-bawdy repartee. It's partly a flaw in Molière's original—he wrote the character of Arnolphe for himself and the bulk of the role is of the stand-and-deliver-pithy-speeches variety. Matthews is certainly up to the task, delivering a wickedly self-assured performance, maintaining a line load that would crush the life out of a less capable actor. Director David Chambers overcompensates for the lack of action by encouraging his otherwise excellent cast to mug their way through several of the talkier scenes, a decision that makes the few slapstick bits feel forced and joyless.
While this production isn't as lively a staging as this play deserves, it is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a master playwright's world and revel in the sharp insight of this rarely performed comedy.
The School for Wives at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 10. $19-$52.