Moliére’s obsessive Arnolphe may not be as icily contemptuous as Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, but he shares the latter’s self-blindness and casual cruelty. At the same time, Moliére makes this lecherous schemer so pitifully foolish that his nasty machinations leave us less scandalized than helplessly amused. Arnolphe thinks keeping his young wife-to-be, Agnés, uneducated and sequestered will preserve her charms for him alone, an isolation drill that both Ralph Reed and the holy men of Qum might endorse today. But Agnés proves definitively that native wit and decency can triumph against the most pathological of educations. Rousseau may not have had much time for Moliére, but this time they’re on the same page.
An elegantly bare set lends Pearl Theatre Company’s production an admirably unpretentious style. And this School for Wives is pitched decidedly to the groundlings. More faith in the audience to catch the play’s drift with less mugging would be appreciated, especially given Earle Edgerton’s fluidly lucid translation. Hana Moon still seems to be searching for a cohesive take on her Agnés, but Dan Daily’s cheerfully obtuse Arnolphe keeps this wickedly precise, profoundly moral classic vibrant.