The central character in Molière's comedy, here translated and adapted by Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe, could be and often is a punching bag. But not here. Arnolphe is another in a stream of Molière's aging, patronizing nitwits (like Orgon in Tartuffe), who presume that they can control the devotions and passions of young women in their care. In Tartuffe, when Orgon's daughter protests his insistence that she break her wedding plans to her beloved suitor in order to marry the clergyman he prefers, Orgon figures her rebellion is just a impetuous, childlike phase. In The School for Wives, there's a similar mindset to Arnolphe (Bo Roberts), who has tried to sculpt his young ward, Agnes (Jessica Madison), into his future wife. He's known her since she was 4, and he's strategically kept her closeted, as though in a convent, hoping thereby to shape her obedience and gratitude. Just as he's about to wed her, in stumbles young Horace (Dave Mack) from the street below her window, and the youthful pair are smitten with each other, soon conniving against the old bachelor. Horace, not realizing that Arnolphe is the man keeping Agnes as his imprisoned ward, keeps confiding in the older man about his and Agnes' schemes, fueling Arnolphe's exasperation and fury. Perhaps it's the use of director Michel's tender, Baroque soundtracks, or the gentle understatement of Roberts' performance as Arnolphe, but the play emerges less as a clown show and more as a wistful, almost elegiac, rumination on aging and folly. Arnolphe tried to create a brainless wife as though from a Petri dish, an object he can own, and the more she rejects him, the more enamored he becomes of her, until his heart breaks. The pathos is underscored by the obvious intelligence of Madison's Agnes — an intelligence Arnolphe is blind to. The production's reflective tone supersedes Michel's very stylized, choreographic staging (this company's trademark). The ennui is further supported by a similarly low-key portrayal by David E. Frank as Arnolphe's blithe friend and confidant, Chrysalde. In fact, when lisping, idiot servants (Cynthia Mance and Ken Rudnicki) keep running in circles and crashing into each other, Michel's one attempt at Commedia physicality is at odds with the production rather than a complement to it. Company costumer Josephine Poinsot (surprising she doesn't work more) provides luscious period vestments and gowns, and Duncombe's delightful production design includes a gurgling fountain, a tub of white roses and abstract hints of some elegant Parisian court. City Garage, 1340½ Fourth St. (alley entrance), Santa Monica; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5:30 p.m.; through May 31. (310) 319-9939.

Fri., March 20, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5:30 p.m. Starts: March 20. Continues through May 31, 2009

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