More than 300 years after William Wycherley put quill to paper and came up with "The Country Wife," that libidinous comedy of manners remains one of the theater's most licentious products.
It is protected, of course, by its "classic" status and the evolution of the English language, which every decade or so coins a new vocabulary for matters sexual. But its mind--not to mention the minds of its characters--dwells deliciously in the boudoir. In Wycherley's view, the holy state of marriage is populated by fops, fools, stuffy husbands and randy wives, for whom fidelity is a gross inconvenience and honor a flimsy masquerade.
As the second offering of its two-week residency in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, The Acting Company revived the play yesterday for five performances through Saturday. The young performers do give it a game try, although the results are not quite gamy enough to unleash all of Wycherley's comic energies. The play at the Terrace is more like . . . well . . . foreplay.
Consider Wycherley's premise alone. Horner, a calculating rake, has had it bruited about London that, thanks to his doctor's ministrations, he is now a eunuch. He knows that the false admission will open him up to ridicule from his male acquaintances, but reasons that they will henceforth experience no qualms about leaving him in the company of their wives. How Horner makes his way through society, reaping, among his just desserts, a certain Margery Pinchwife, fresh as a country egg and ready to be cracked, constitutes the play's seditious merriment.
While The Acting Company doesn't exactly pull back from the material, it doesn't really take the cuckold by the horns, either. Casey Biggs is splendidly rapacious as Horner, a sly Machiavelli of the bedsheets. And Lynn Chausow has some nice moments as the naive country wife, who awakens rapidly to forbidden pleasures, although she tends to play comedy broad and floppy. Most of the other performers, however, seem smothered by the fussy Restoration mannerisms and the ornate layers of costumes they are carrying on their backs.
Those costumes, explosively garish, and the set, a mirrored box lit by candles weeping wax, all lend a dark note to the proceedings. As it demonstrated previously with its inventive "Twelfth Night," this year The Acting Company seems to be exploring the underside of comedies traditionally viewed as far brighter. But what this "Country Wife" needs first is the pure, giddy exhilaration of sex. "La petite mort," as the French say, comes afterward.
THE COUNTRY WIFE. By William Wycherley. Directed by Garland Wright; sets, Jack Barkla, costumes, Judith Dolan; lighting, Dennis Parichy. With The Acting Company. At the Terrace Theater through Saturday.