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A CurtainUp Review

Give her another hundred years, I concluded. . . let her speak her mind and leave out half of what she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days. — an excerpt from Virginia Woolf's writings, quoted by playwright Jaclyn Backhaus in her program note.
Purva Bedi and Aadya Bedi (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Forget Gloria Steinem. It was discontented wives who stirred up the first wave of feminism.

That idea might have fluttered across Jaclyn Backhaus' mind as she penned Wives, an intriguing four-act comedy that invites you to time travel through history and listen to the various voices of wives who have, for better or worse, been joined in matrimony to great men.

Now running at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater and directed by Margot Bordelon, this 80-minute theater piece starts strong but unfortunately loses much of its steam halfway through.. And while Backhaus undoubtedly takes creative liberties with history, now and then, she always adheres to the emotional truth of the women.

In the first act, entitled "King Henry II," you are transported to France in the 1500s and get to eavesdrop on the royal household: Queen Catherine de Medici (aka "Queen Cathy"), her husband King Henry II, his favorite mistress Diane de Poitiers, and the royal Cook. Things get complicated, however, when the King is fatally wounded in a jousting tournament and on his death-bed cried out for Diane, the madly jealous Queen maliciouslykeeps this from her. lEven worse, the new royal widow craftily rewrites parts of the King's will, ensuring that the beautiful Chateau de Chenonceau goes to her and Diane gets nothing.

Beyond the bloody tournament and cat-fights, there are more wild and wooly things that unspool in this story. Case in point: You get to witness Diane famously imbibing the "drinkable gold" that she believed would keep her youthful. You also hear the Queen propose—are you ready?--an eleventh-hour feminist alliance with Diane.

The second act, entitled "Big Ern," whisks us   to Ketchum, Iowa, and the funeral of Ernest "Papa" Hemingway. There you catch a glimpse of the literary genius himself and can listen to his self-eulogy, a mock meditation on his personal strengths and weaknesses—plus a stony silence on his four marriages ("I have nothing to say to my wives"). Lifting the veil of silence, however, is one of his three outspoken wives in attendance, Martha Gellhorm. And her voice is soon joined by his other two wives: the widow Mary Hemingway and Hadley Richardson. (His second wife Pauline Pfeiffer is already dead but her ghost broods over the goings on.)

The drama ratchets up when the wives toast Hemingway and then begin to swap stories about the author who, in Martha's words, was "the pinnacle of all manhood." There's an eye-catching scene that shows his spouses collectively hoist a huge blue marlin over their heads and exit the stage. Yes, it's an obvious nod to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

."Maharaja Madho Singh II" is set in a palace in Rajasthan, India, in the early 1900s. Standing in front of a large map of India, you see a geeky character named Mr. Patterson who speaks with a fastidious British accent. This self-described royalist delivers what is the rough equivalent of a TED talk, expounding on "late-stage imperialism" and then informing you that it's his patriotic duty to report on the relationship of his Royal Highness Maharaja Madho Singh II and his treasured concubine Roop Rai, who is referred to as a "female Rasputin." The playwright dpes overly trust tje audience to be familiar with Indian cultural terms like the "zenana" (the part of the house reserved for women) and what the mores are in early 20th century India." Consequently, this vignette can be as confusing as it is fascinating.

The final act, "Now With Ghosts," is more of a coda than a fleshed-out story. It surreally takes you to an intermingled time space continuum at fictive Oxbridge University and centers on witches banding together on campus and and letting their witchery grow in numbers and strength. Unsurprisingly, these fledgling spell-casters greatly admire the writer Virginia Woolf who they also call "a witch." Although it's hard to sift the foul from the fair in this skit, Woolf and her strong feminist leanings prevail.

Regardless of the historical period that any one of these wives—or other characters—lives in, they all speak in today's vernacular. And some of the feistier wivesmlike Catherine de Medici, would make an NYC cab driver blush with her biting expletives.

Speaking of bite, the four members of the ensemble bite into their multiple parts with relish. Purva Bedi, Adina Verson, and Aadya Bedi-play the role of Wife 1, Wife 2, and Wife 3, respectively, and also insinuate themselves into other characters, depending on the dramatic moment. Sathya Sridharan tackles the role of Man throughout, articulating a male's point of view across the centuries.

Reid Thompson's multi-cultural set, lit by Amith Chandrashake contrasts European, American, and Asian imagery. Valerie Therese Bart's colorful costumes suit all characters and era

Backhaus is one of the up-and-comers in the New York theater world. Although her play Men in Boats(reviewed by Charles Wright) had more focus and her India Pale Ale (reviewed by Elyse Somer) had more dramatic unity than Wives, but Backhaus still drives home an urgent message here about patriarchal tropes and how they can insidiously infect a marriage and undo a woman's self-identity.

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Wives, a comedy by Jaclyn Backhaus
Directed by Margot Bordelon.
Cast: Purva Bedi (Wife 1/Queen Cathy & others), Sathya Sridharan (Man, King Henri & others), Adina Verson (Wife 2, Cook & others), Aadya Bedi (Wife 3, Diane & others).
Sets: Reid Thompson
Costumes: Valerie Therese Bart
Sound and Original Music: Kate Marvin
Lighting: Amith Chandrashaker's
Stage Manager: Erin Gioia Albrecht
Playwrights Horizons at 416 W. 42nd Street. For more information, visit online at
From 8/23/19; opening 9/16/19; closing 10 /06/19.
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 9/11/19.

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