we’re all just women complacent women
sidekicks to a monument
So observes one of the participants of a make believe conclave of Ernest Hemingway’s two ex-wives and his widow after his 1961 funeral in playwright Jaclyn Backhaus’ Wives. It’s comprised of four zany sketches concerned with the theme of the historical oppression of women.
Ms. Backhaus’ writing is erudite, well-shaped and imaginative but isn’t funny which is problematic considering it’s intended as a barbed comedy until its heartfelt metaphysical conclusion. Much of it frantically plays out with Monty Python’s intellectualism crossed with Mel Brooks’ coarseness and dashes of Alan Bennett’s pathos. Virginia Woolf figures prominently in one part. Though noble in intent, it’s an unsatisfying exercise that’s more synthetic than profound.
The opening is a cooking demonstration à la Julia Child with a bounty of chickens in 16th century France, establishing the tired sense of humor. Then we’re treated to the offbeat conflicts between King Henri, his queen, his mistress and a servant. There’s an E.M. Forster-style 1920’s India sequence set in a Maharaja’s palace involving his wife, a witch and a stereotypical British official. Lastly, we’re in the present at Oxford where a young student witch, wearing a traditional pointy black hat is stirring a cauldron and engages with another female student and the fantastical conclusion is enacted. Though the play is often painfully unfunny, to her great credit, Ms. Backhaus crafts clever transitions allowing each scene to blend into the next.
“Eat my bush?” and “Diane doesn’t live here anymore” are in the context of the show effective zingers, demonstrating Backhaus’ facility for one-liners. Wives might have made for an edgy television special long ago but is deficient as a theatrical work. A few overdone dance numbers don’t help. It has however been given a fabulous production and is performed with the gusto of the Marx Brothers.
The talented ensemble of Aadya Bedi, Purva Bedi, Sathya Sridharan and Adina Verson all attack their various wacky multiple-roles with gleeful ferocity.
Director Margot Bordelon’s inventive and focused staging infuses the presentation with momentum and dazzling visual flourishes. That’s aided by scenic designer Reid Thompson’s brilliant contributions. Weathered medieval-style tapestries hanging around the boxy rectangular playing area that’s set with a few pieces of wooden furniture transports us to 16th century France. A beautiful mountain range backdrop depicts Ketchum, Idaho for the Hemingway gathering. A curtain with images of vintage maps takes us to India and later an artful arrangement of custom curtains serves as the lavish royal palace.
Amith Chandrashaker’s rich lighting design achieves ethereal and temporal dimensions along with cool optical bits. Through often high volume, sound designer Kate Marvin realizes effects and her atmospheric original score. Employing lots of velvet and an assortment of other sumptuous fabrics, costume designer Valérie Thérèse Bart has whipped up a gorgeous collection of garments, perfectly visualizing each character. They are enhanced by J. Jared Janas’ lustrous hair and wig design.
Wives imparts its resonant message, but it isn’t the Caryl Churchill-type sort of dramatic cultural treatise it aspires to be.
Wives (through October 6, 2019)
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission