Manon McCollum, almost 6, walks over to the refrigerator, extracts a red Jell-O snack (Original Wiggle, I’m pretty sure), and takes it back to the living room, where the trailer for Daddy Day Camp plays in the background. “We’re gonna need more toilet paper,” somebody growls.
At the bar separating the kitchen from the dining room in the McCollum house, Manon’s mother, Kristin, and Second Thought Theatre’s Allison Tolman work at adapting the play Second Thought opens this month in the Studio Theatre at WaterTower. It’s hard to imagine a scene more at odds with the bawdy sophistication of William Wycherley’s London in the cheerfully amoral Restoration comedy The Country Wife. But it’s easier than finding a babysitter.
Not an outright farce like Michael Frayn’s Noises Off or the plays of Georges Feydeau, Wycherley’s play has enough of the same riotously funny elements—especially in the crucial “china” scene—that I’d been hoping somebody in town would do it. Then, serendipitously, Second Thought Theatre announced that The Country Wife would be the opening play of its new season. After their success last January with Molière’s Scapino, the company couldn’t resist a shot at Wycherley.
But it’s not just that they wanted to do it; they wanted to do it about Dallas. In fact, they got a grant to do just that, and the play is being underwritten ($25,000) by the Jean Baptiste “Tad” Adoue III Fund of the Dallas Foundation, specifically because it’s going to bring Wycherley’s ribald plot and stinging wit to bear on Dallas society—scenes at Ghostbar and Southfork, things like that. When he wrote the grant proposal, Second Thought’s resident playwright (and superb actor) Steven Walters had planned to do the adaptation with Allison Tolman, since the two of them had worked together before on the adaptation of King Ubu for the Festival of Independent Theaters in the summer of 2005. But Walters was hired by Friday Night Lights for several episodes this fall, if not for the season as a whole, so he had to excuse himself from the project. Kristin McCollum, known to Dallas theater audiences for her incisive intelligence as an actress, most recently in Echo Theatre’s A String of Pearls and Second Thought’s Jack and Jill, stepped in to work with Tolman on the adaptation.
Wycherley’s play, first produced in 1675, is the essential Restoration comedy, since it distills the particular kind of wit that characterized the generation in power after England shed the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell. Those of the royalist bent, many of whom had spent some time in exile in France during Cromwell’s protectorate, Wycherley among them, came home full of French ideas from the stage of Molière, and those ideas got bawdier crossing the English Channel, especially with all those Puritans to tweak.
The Country Wife is about a man named Horner (get it?) who hires a doctor named Quack to declare him hopelessly impotent due to the French pox, as syphilis was known at the time. Why would he do such a thing to himself? Because he has a reputation in London of being the best of seducers. Husbands won’t let him near their wives, and women who value their reputations stay far away from him. But this way, as the news of his disability spreads, he’ll have the perfect cover. Once the rumor gets abroad that the mighty Horner’s a eunuch, he can tell who’s wearing the fake halo: “Now I can be sure she that shows an aversion to me loves the sport,” he tells Quack. “Your women of honor, as you call ’em, are only chary of their reputations, not their persons, and ’tis scandal they would avoid, not men.”
The title character, Mrs. Margery Pinchwife, is to the other women—Lady Fidget and Mrs. Squeamish—what Jessica Simpson in The Dukes of Hazzard is to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Margery says she likes the actors in a play “hugeously,” for example. The middle-aged Pinchwife, once a rake himself, married her in the country, where the good-looking girls don’t know Payless from Manolo Blahnik, and he wants to keep her as ignorant as possible. Horner, of course, spots her immediately.
The question is, what does such a plot look like in Dallas? Maybe a little like Shampoo, the 1975 comedy in which Warren Beatty plays a hairdresser in Beverly Hills: all the husbands (who are very much mistaken) assume he’s gay. The Country Wife won’t work here, of course, unless the women who take advantage of Horner’s position also happen to be the ones with the most to lose from any kind of scandal. Who would those be? The ones Harry Hunsicker makes fun of in his latest novel, Crosshairs, ladies who fight tooth and nail to get on the Cattle Baron’s committee, where they “spend millions to make thousands.” Somehow (forgive me, Park Cities), it sounds hilarious even in the abstract, so when I found out Second Thought was adapting it as a Dallas play, I e-mailed Allison Tolman, who invited me to that afternoon’s early August session, because she and Kristin McCollum were working on the adaptation at the McCollum house.
When I get there, McCollum’s little white dog Baz (as in Baz Luhrman), a star in Second Thought’s production of Steven Walters’ History of the World a year or so ago, cannot be happier to see me. Manon and her little sister, Lily, 4, a little less enthusiastic, are watching TV in the living room. I recognize both of them from the YouTube spots Second Thought runs to promote its productions. Mom has the MacBook open for business on the kitchen bar. She and Tolman are just getting started on the scene when one of Horner’s friends, Harcourt, first sees Alithea, Pinchwife’s sister and Margery’s sister-in-law, who is disastrously engaged to “a bubble, a coward, a senseless idiot” named Sparkish, and they are worrying over the word “bubble” and whether it will still work if they use it now.
“I kind of feel like we’re taking the high language down just a notch so that nothing will stand out too much,” Tolman says. “We’re just trying to make things flow so no one misses anything. A lot of the words we have to look up and find out what they mean.”
“And that’s the frustrating thing,” McCollum adds. “There are so many wonderful words from back then that we don’t have anymore. That’s been our toughest challenge so far—to find language that fits. The word ‘cuckold’ appears numerous times in the play, and we’re assuming that the majority of the audience knows what a cuckold is, but we’re not sure. If they don’t, they’re not going to get a majority of the play.”
“I told Kristin that we’re just going to have to use that word,” Tolman says. “There’s no way we can get around it.”
No, sir, can’t do without “cuckold.” If you didn’t get it before, the name “Horner” refers to the belief that husbands whose wives are betraying them grow horns. (Where that idea came from, I’ll leave to deeper scholars.) Horner = giver of horns. Without that equivalence, there’s no play.
“I think we’re definitely trying to play up the Dallas culture in showing the wealthier side of Dallas, whether they’re old money or new money,” Tolman says. “We received this grant basically by telling them that we were pushing the Dallas envelope. We’re also giving it a political bent, too, because there are lots of politics in the play. We may have a few jabs at Dallas politics and see what we can get away with. I can’t even imagine a script better suited to this city. I think people are really going to like it.”
Hugeously, sounds like. Of course, that leaves unasked the question underlying the whole adaptation. Who’s the true Dallas Horner? Metaphorically speaking, that is. Who puts about rumors of his own impotence so he can have his way unchecked, sacrificing his own reputation so he can save the “honor” of those he—hmm, how to put it? Must be one of those Restoration words.
The Country Wife runs from October 4 through 21. Visit www.secondthoughttheatre.com or call 972-450-6232 for tickets. Glenn Arbery ([email protected]) is a senior editor for People Newspapers and a contributing editor to D Magazine.