In future dramatic-literature annals, the category of #MeToo plays could very well appear. When it does, Jaclyn Backhaus’ Wives, currently at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, will be cited. The playwright is intent on righting the timeless disparity between the social standing of men and women, and here she leavens her crusade with comedy. For the most part.
In this 80-minute piece, Backhaus presents three sketches of approximately 20 minutes and a more serious 20-minute coda. Greatly abetted by director Margot Bordelon, ticket holders are enlightened at the same time as the playwright mildly chastises them for their complicity, possibly, in the sins of #MeToo.
In the first sketch, Backhaus recalls France’s Henri II (Sathya Sridharan) being habitually fought over at the Chàteau de Chenonceau by his wife, Catherine de Medicis (Purva Bedi), whose marriage was arrange, and Diane de Poitier (Aadya Bedi), his live-in mistress. (Considered the more beautiful of the vying ladies, Diane was said to resemble Diana, the Moon goddess; costume designer Válerie Thèrése Bart thus adorns her with a headpiece that features a crescent moon.)
The manner in which these women undermine each other is depicted with great fun. This as Henri preens, little caring for the ever-present intramural battle under his nose, though he does make it plain that Diane is his preferred bedmate. Which contender has the upper hand is at stake — and it’s Catherine, in control of the dying king’s will, who ultimately seems to prevail. (The monarch, a hunter and jouster, succumbs to a lance wound.) As the proceedings unfold, there’s also a cook (Adina Verson) who hangs about as a kind of proto-Julia Child, with far more to say than most downstairs minions would have had agency to offer in those days.
For the second sketch, entitled “The Big Ern,” Backhaus skips a few hundred years to Ernest Hemingway (Sridharan). Seeking to mock the author’s vaunted machismo, three of his wives — Hadley Richardson Hemingway (Aadya Bedi), Martha Gellhorn (Purva Bedi) and Mary Welch Hemingway (Verson) — don’t ever refer to him as Papa but carry on heartily in other ways. (Wife number four, Pauline Pfeiffer, doesn’t appear. Well, there are only three female actors in the cast.)
Since sending up Hemingway’s very specific prose style has been a pastime for decades, Backhaus doesn’t forfeit her chance to join in, having his disgruntled divorcés engage in an impromptu Hemingway-imitation contest, deriving chuckle after chuckle at their expertise. For a while Mary is reluctant, but, goaded by the other two, she takes things even farther, ending with a vulgar diatribe. (Incidentally, the women’s bitter koffeeklatch occurs before a projection, designed by production stage manager Erin Gioia Albrecht, showing distant mountains. Is this an allusion to The Snows of Kilimanjaro? Or the 1952 film adaptation of that Hemingway novella?)
Sketch three tumbles back to the early 20th century and the reign of Madho Singh II (Sridharan again), the last ruling Maharaja of Jaipur State, as well as British interloper Aloysious Patterson (Verson), and various courtiers. This time, Backhaus’ tickling feather does its job less well. It’s a not-so-comic dip that raises the question of whether Backhaus might have worked up one, two or any number of additional wives-on-the-rampage pieces. If so, maybe something else could have substituted here; enough said about that.
Indeed, it’s in the final sequence where all pretense of eliciting laughter is dropped. Here, a young woman of today (Aadya Bedi) is advised by her grandparents (Sridharan again, and Purva Bedi) on how to come into her own — into the own of all women behind #MeToo — which, to be clear, isn’t mentioned explicitly.
To underline this final scene, lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker envelops a dark stage with dots of light, indicating cosmic implications. Unfortunately, Backhaus drops her bag of jokes during these weighty minutes in favor of rather self-important language.
Speaking of language: Backhaus takes the edge off of her welcome humor by salting much of her dialogue with annoyingly contemporary expressions. There is one — “fuckery” — that is much less incurred nowadays than others. But as with so many current playwrights, she believes that by inserting “fuck” and its many forms, she’s doubling the audience pleasure, doubling her own fun. But why the proliferation? Is she heralding or beckoning a cultural moment in which women, having listened to men being profane for so long, feel that they must appropriate profanity as part of the assuaging of wrong that is #MeToo? Is this what qualifies as equity, as redressing wrongs, as liberation?
It’s unlikely that the female members of Henry II’s retinue, for example, would throw the f-word around like so many precious royal baubles. Nor would, for another example, the well-brought-up, assiduously protected Hadley. Backhaus compounds the Hemingway-wives section by having them insert “like” in their lines. “Shit,” too, is abundant. Why?
As with just about all Playwrights Horizons productions, Wives looks sparklingly good, starting with intricate hangings filling three walls for the Henry II sketch that set designer Reid Thompson invites patrons to ogle before Chandrashaker’s lights rise and the chatty cook arrives to prepare a chicken dinner. Given the variety of locales Backhaus specifies, Thompson neatly meets all requirements. The same applies to Bart’s costumes, which can easily be put on or taken off for quick on-stage and off-stage changes. The Henri II-reign clothes are sumptuous, and the black cocktail-party outfits worn by the Hemingway women look right — especially the hats. J. Jared Janas‘ hair and wig designs complement properly, as does Kate Marvin’s sound and original music.
The young woman of today discovers that “everything about me is fine.” Were it not for the many utterly clichéd language lapses, the same might be said about Backhaus’ Wives.