Naomi Wallace is the first living U.S. playwright to make it into the repertory of France’s oldest and most prestigious theater, the Comedie-Francaise.
Tennessee Williams had been dead for 28 years when he was admitted in 2011.
Wallace’s astonishing feat may have something to do with a general policy to promote female authors: In the last decade, the Comedie-Francaise has staged Marguerite Duras’s “Savannah Bay” and Marie N’Daye’s “Papa Doit Manger” (Daddy Must Eat).
Since 2006, the company has been run by a woman: Muriel Mayette, the first female director in its 332-year history.
“Une Puce, Epargnez-La,” or “One Flea Spare,” is one of the earliest among Wallace’s two dozen plays. It was commissioned by London’s Bush Theater and first performed there in 1995. Two years later, the Joseph Papp Public Theater introduced it to a New York audience.
The Kentucky-born author made her name in the U.K. where she lives with the father of her children -- which may explain the English background. The title is a quotation from an erotic poem by John Donne. The action takes place in London in 1665, the year of the bubonic plague.
William Snelgrave, a rich merchant, and his wife Darcy live as prisoners in their own house after their servants have been killed by the epidemic. Their hope that the quarantine will soon be lifted is dashed when two gatecrashers arrive -- Bunce, a sexy sailor, and Morse, a precocious 12-year-old girl who says she’s the daughter of neighbors.
Immediately, the four characters engage in a game of sexual class warfare. Snelgrave, while insisting on his superior social standing, prods Bunce into talking about his sex life.
Darcy, who has been horribly burned in a fire shortly after their marriage and hasn’t been touched by her husband since then, dreams of raping the sailor.
The strange mix of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Sartre’s “No Exit” culminates in the landlord being tied to a chair while the lady explores the proletarian’s body.
In the end, everybody is dead. Only the sailor’s fate remains unclear.
In an epilogue to the printed text and in the program, Wallace writes about the sufferings of the working class in the Victorian age, the oppression of women through the cult of youth and beauty and AIDS, the epidemic that reached its climax while she was working on the play.
Her extra tuition can’t make up for the flimsiness and false profundity of her story.
A fifth character, the guard Kabe, who’s given to poetic sermons and who, at one point, appears with a bucket of glowing coals on his head, is no great help.
Director Anne-Laure Liegeois does her best to bring the contrived plot to life. Her sober set and period costumes will remind you of the peaceful interiors of Dutch painters.
The 20 short scenes are separated by harpsichord interludes. The more the plot progresses, the more black birds appear on the scene, calmly awaiting the inevitable outcome.
It’s not the fault of the actors that their characters remain ciphers. They are all good. Felicien Juttner, however, is too skinny to be believable as the sailor who turns the heads of men and women.
“Une Puce, Epargnez-La” is in repertory through June 12. Information: http://www.comedie-francaise.fr.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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