THE WIFE OF WILLESDEN For Today — Review
Like Pasolini and Aubrey Plaza before her, writer Zadie Smith has grabbed the naughtiest bits from a centuries-old foundational text and revitalized them for our enjoyment and education. In this case, she’s transferred “The Wife of Bath”—a notable entry in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales wherein a woman colorfully argues for her gender’s sexual independence—to her titular hometown in Greater London, where this latest work, The Wife of Willesden, first opened before playing in Cambridge’s ART and, now setting up shop at BAM.
As with those earlier adaptations, there’s a peculiar fun in seeing behaviors we think oh-so-modern described with archaic acuity, but also the pitfalls of relying on that recognition to carry out an entire new work. Smith inserts herself into the narrative as its Author (Jessica Murrain), who whisks us to North London, 2022, where the heat’s “apocalyptic vibes” cause a pub owner to mount an open-mic competition.
The villagers bite and, as we’re told in Smith’s biting, poetic humor, “All telling their stories—mostly men. Not because they had better stories but because they had no doubt that we should Hear them. The night wore on. I wondered: Would a woman speak? And one or two did.”
One surely does: Alvita (a luminous Clare Perkins), who guides us through her lifelong study of men, learned from five husbands, and has a marriage story to tell. But before she shares her fable, she’ll explain how she arrived at what she now knows. We’re introduced to all of her former partners: some were older, some younger, one cheated, a couple were jealous, and all had some half-assed, reductive outlook on women. Checks out.
Alvita (and Perkins) weaves through each of these with raucous wit; a formidable hostess whose rich, open-armed declarations conjure up wonderful bits of scenic design (by Robert Jones), like serving trays held up as makeshift halos when she details the history of misogyny from Eve, through the Greeks, to Lorena Bobbit; or the gorgeous medieval tapestry hanging in the back of the expansive barroom set.
But not every aspect of the production matches that wonderfully resourceful spirit. Though the sound design (by Ben and Max Ringham) tries to have fun in its increasing reliance on modern R&B songs, from Chaka Khan to Nicki Minaj, it’s shoddily deployed, and drags down the one-act play’s momentum. And Indhu Rubasingham’s slack direction struggles to hold our attention as Smith’s folksiness loses its initial charm.
Alvita’s tale, once it arrives in the play’s final 20 or so minutes, is kind of a dud. After spending such a delightful time reveling in the complexities of the bon vivant philosophies she’s learned from her archetypal encounters with men, to wrap up with another allegory is to add an unnecessary cherry to an already tart dessert cocktail. By then, we’re more inclined to use the bathroom before following Alvita to “the old bingo place” (what she calls the local church), rather than listen to our dear friend’s oft-repeated story. She might tell it well, but we’d have a better time together elsewhere.
The Wife of Willesden is in performance through April 16, 2023 at BAM’s Harvey Theatre on Fulton Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.