How much you'll enjoy Dallas Theater Center's production of Molière's The School for Wives might depend upon your tolerance for rhyming dialogue. Can you stand an evening of rhyming couplets without the urge to throwy uplet?
It's a quaint old thing, this 353-year-old French comedy about one man's desire to wed a much younger woman unsullied by education or other men. Fifty-year-old bachelor Arnolphe (played by DTC's company clown Chamblee Ferguson) grooms Agnès (SMU student Morgan Lauré) for marriage, first by becoming her legal guardian, then by locking her away in a convent for a decade before moving her into his house as a virtual hostage. "She's like a lump of wax and I can mold her to whatever I may like as I grow older," Arnolphe says.
Arnolphe concocts this creepy arrangement to guarantee that he'll never be cuckolded, unlike all the other husbands in town whose wives are unfaithful. (To help anyone unfamiliar with the word, director Kevin Moriarty provides the definition of "cuckold" writ large on a sign center stage before performances at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.)
As it's a farce, Arnolphe turns from villain to victim as his scheme unravels. When he discovers that a friend's handsome young son, Horace (a bewigged, chain-smoking Daniel Duque-Estrada), has been wooing Agnès right under his nose, Arnolphe tries to undo the romance with the help of simple-minded servants (Liz Mikel and Chris Hury, both wringing big laughs from small roles). But the more Arnolphe tries, the less successful he is at keeping Agnès to himself.
Playing in repertory through the end of March with the Greek tragedy Medea, also directed by Moriarty and cast with many of the same actors, The School for Wives would be a long, sing-songy slog without Ferguson's tireless physical silliness. His slim frame encased in an ill-tailored dung-brown suit, Ferguson's Arnolphe is Barney Fife's French cousin, a lovably nervous nitwit doomed to romantic failure. Onstage for nearly every minute of the play, Ferguson punctuates dialogue with goofy faces and semi-bawdy gestures. He is the comic engine that keeps this thing chugging along.
His main obstacle to more laughs is working opposite Lauré as Agnès. Too much the "lump of wax," she dulls any bubbling farcical fizz with her reading of "The Maxims of Marriage," a list of wifely duties Lauré delivers with all the sexy verve of a catechism lesson. Agnès is supposed to be a drop-dead sexy naif, not a dead-eyed pony-tailed princess.
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In the role of Arnolphe's wise friend Chrysalde, Kieran Connolly doesn't try for comedy all that much; he just says his lines with excellent diction. Arriving late in the play, Sally Nystuen Vahle is funny enough as Agnès' mom. Dennis Raveneau pops up in two small parts, creating swift comic back-and-forths with the ever effervescent Ferguson.
School doesn't let out before there's a slapstick pie fight. That's some creamy slimin' after all that rhymin'.