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by Jerry Tallmer

[01] Shepard Sobel's "The Country Wife" at the Pearl
[02] WHOA-JACK! An adaptation by Jeff Cohen of Georg Buchner's "Woyzeck"

Oh, the tragedy of it. An operation has left Harry Horner impotent. "A man unfit for women . . . a mere eunuch."

Or so he would have every male in London -- especially every husband -- believe. The ladies, as it happens, know better -- or soon, to their relish, learn better, when dropping in at Horner's lodgings, one after another, with the full approbation of their deluded, blustering, cuckolded mates.

In a single day -- just under three hours in the theater -- Horner disproves his incapacity to no fewer than four such gladly cooperative females, not least Mrs. Margery Pinchwife, the naive young cloistered-away wife of a bullying, jealous, violence-prone, paranoid 50-year-old member of the landed gentry.

In 1675, when William Wycherley's "The Country Wife" had its first performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, everything you ever wanted to know about sex was right there in that frank and fearless Restoration comedy, 300 years before Masters & Johnson, Dr. Ruth, Howard Stern, or Kenneth Starr.

It's just that it didn't use four-letter words as such, at least not the same four-letter words as today. One very useful five-letter word for Wycherley, for instance, was "china" -- the porcelain stuff that teapots and so forth are made of. Except that in "The Country Wife," the word "china" becomes a synonym for masculine equipment, sexual intercourse, and other tomfoolery.

[Enter LADY FIDGET with a piece of china in her hand, and HORNER following]

LADY FIDGET [to MRS. SQUEAMISH]: And I have been toiling and moiling for the prettiest piece of china, my dear . . .

SQUEAMISH: O Lord, I'll have some china too. Good Master Horner, don't think to give other people china, and me none. Come in with me too.

HORNER: Upon my bonour I have none left now.

SQUEAMISH: Nay, nay, I have known you deny your china before now, but you shan't put me off so. Come.

HORNER: This lady had the last there.

LADY FIDGET: Yes indeed, madam, to my certain knowledge he has no more left.

SQUEAMISH: Oh, but it may be he may have some you could not find.

LADY FIDGET: What, d'ye think if he had had any left. I would not have had it too? For we women of quality never think we have china enough.

"In 17th-century England the china shops were new and rare," says Shepard Sobel, who has researched the subject. "And they were also very popular places for assignations. So perhaps that's how Wycherley hit on 'china' as a code word for sex."

Sobel, the co-founding (with his wife, actress Joanne Camp) artistic director of the Pearl Theatre Company, mounted the production of "The Country Wife" that had a well-received January run at the Pearl, 80 St. Mark's Place.

In the above scene as played at the Pearl, Lady Fidget (Robin Leslie Brown), emerging from a closet, hands the piece of china to her just-cuckolded husband, Sir Jaspar Fidget (Edward Seamon), who hands it in turn to Old Lady Squeamish (Anna Minot), grandmother of Mrs. Squeamish.

There are no stage directions for any such action. "What you can't find on the page you find in rehearsal," says Sobel. "That's Wycherley's stage sense -- he really knew what would play. And that's what you need audiences for.

"In the first few days of previews there were giggles during this scene, but we weren't really playing it broad enough. You don't want to go so far as playing the whole thing with a wink to the audience -- that's too far. We went just far enough for some nice laughs."

A good part of those laughs he ascribes to the face of Anna Minot at the top of the scene. "When she's handed this piece of china she brings 40 or 50 years on stage to knowing just how to handle it."

The Horner of the Pearl production was Ray Virta, the Mrs. Margery Pinchwife of the title (once played by, among others, Ruth Gordon) is Patricia Dalen.

Completing the ensemble: Lisa Bansavage (Mrs. Dainty Fidget), Hope Chernov (Mrs. Alithea), Dan Daily (Mr. Jack Pinchwife), Matthew Gray (Bartholomew), Robert Hock (Quack), Christopher Moore (Sparkish), Paul Niebank (Harcourt), John Prave (Dorilant), and Missy Thomas (Lucy).

"A tough show, because it's so huge," says its director. "Just under three hours, and 15 people. We've been wanting to do it for years.

"We put it off for two reasons. One, when I first read it in graduate school, I couldn't make head or tail of it. Two, the language. In talking with Robert Neff Williams, our Speech and Text Coach, it became clear that you really can't do a play like this unless you have the language.

"There are very few actors [in America] who have ] such skills. So we prepared ourselves by doing some classic comedies where the language was very difficult but not quite this difficult: 'The Rivals,' 'School for Scandal,' 'The Beaux Stratagem.' "

Sobel says that though he cut the play by about 15 percent, "not a word [otherwise] has been changed." That means leaving in place anachronisms like "salute" for "kiss."

"It's a temptation just to change the word to 'kiss,' but if you do, you lose the charm, and the whole feel of an era. So I'd rather do it the hard way.

"It's our job -- the job of the actors -- to make the meanings clear. That's also the great delight: It's like watching a language Olympics. We learned a lot from the preview audiences -- learned where the laughs don't ] come. We also learned that this show is very, very popular. And I have no explanation for that."

But you're not broken-hearted --

"No, I'm not."

What Sobel finds "most remarkable" about "The Country Wife" is "that it's still shocking. This is not a promiscuous or salacious play. It's shocking in that its attitude toward sex is so honest."

Or as Wycherley, through Horner, puts it: "Well, Sir Jaspar, plain dealing is a jewel."

Does Shep Sobel see Horner as a nice guy like Bill Clinton or, depending on where you come from, a rotten guy like Bill Clinton?

"Well," says the director, "he's both, really. The fact that the playwright uses Horner to unmask all brands of hypocrisy doesn't mean that the actor has to play him like the Lone Ranger. You just have to play him as a man asking: 'Who -- what woman -- is interested, and how fast can I get her into my bed?'

"That doesn't make Horner a good guy or a bad guy. It just makes him a guy.

"The joke, in the end, is on him as well as everyone else, because he gets more than he can handle. They're coming in the windows."

Everybody should have it so bad.

Were Georg Buchner to be reborn today, he might be a little astonished.

On Reade Street, far downtown in a city called New York, his Franz Woyzeck, an inarticulate, humiliated, cuckolded private soldier at a remote militia post in provincial 1830s Germany, has turned into Private Jackson, an unlettered black enlisted man similarly humiliated by his officers, but at an Army base in the Deep South in the United States of 1961.

Not only that, but not every drama these days has a black man saying things like:

"Look at the kid sleepin'. I'll just move his arm so he don't get a cramp. Look at that, Mary -- those drops on his head. We niggers is a sorry lot, always workin', always sweatin', even in our sleep."

Or a white man (the Colonel, chief among the officers bedeviling Jackson) saying things like:

"Slow down. Jesus Christ, I said slow down, Jackson! . . . What are you in such a rush for? You are making me feel light-headed, boy, with all this running around . . . Think about it, Private. You've got at least 30 years ahead of you . . .

"Of course if you'd finished high school, you'd understand the magnitude of what I'm talking about, boy . . . So don't go rushin' around. When I say go slow, you go slow. When I say: 'Whoa-Jack,' you slow down. You understand me, Private?"

The play -- an adaptation of Buchner's "Woyzeck" -- is in fact called "Whoa-Jack!" and it follows the savage Buchner tragedy scene for scene, transposed in time, locale, ethnicity, and sociological pivot: racism instead of feudalism.

Written in 1981-82 by a Jeff Cohen then, at 24 or 25, a smidge older than the Buchner who, dead at 24, had left the scattered, unnumbered pages of "Woyzeck" behind him, "Whoa-Jack!" is only now receiving its world premiere. The show, directed by Cohen, has been extended through Feb. 15 at the Tribeca Playhouse, 111 Reade Street.

A Jazz Singer -- Queen Esther -- backed by a jazz quartet, provides a strong undertide of blues and soul from the opening with Duke Ellington's "Solitude" to Billie Holiday's "God Save the Child" at close, after Jackson, on the heels of his own explosion of violent vengeance, is lynched.

"When I wrote this thing I really didn't know any better," says the Cohen who a decade later would come up with such shockingly good, sharply pertinent updates of the classics as "Orestes: I Murdered My Mother" and "The Seagull: The Hamptons: 1990s." But the pattern had been set back with this youthful first stab at the process.

"I always try to make connections," says Cohen. "Connections for me. ] I guess I first read 'Woyzeck' at NYU in the '70s, and I actually acted in a college production of it, I think in the role of Woyzeck's friend Andres.

"Buchner was really such a revolutionary of the drama, coming up with a proletarian anti-hero and the use of idiomatic speech for the lower-class characters. But the German sensibility has always been difficult for me to connect with.

"So why the black-and-white of my version? I honestly don't remember, but at this remove it's easy to see that the dirty secret which has always been swept under the rug in Europe is that feudalism was a slave structure. So, yeah, Woyzeck [a peasant pulled into the army] was descended from slaves."

It must be said -- an interviewer said -- that sometimes some of the speeches and characters in your play border on caricature.

"Yes," said Cohen, "I think that's why it's taken me a long time as a director to create a complete picture. If the Jackson character -- or the Woyzeck character -- does not have a dignity or an intelligence, the play loses any value.

"Here you've got a guy, in 1960, '61, who lacks education; doesn't have the ability, or the background, to be articulate. He's also caught in a social structure that's built around just getting along.

"Even now," says Cohen, "all these years after the civil-rights movement, when I visit my brother in Atlanta [Rob Cohen, a photographer for the music industry], I find that the way many blacks interact with whites is scarily deferential. In a restaurant, on a bus . . . you could call it a polity of politeness.

"So in 1961 someone like Jackson almost had ] to take on the mantra of 'Yessuh, no suh' to get along -- especially in the Army."

The Jackson at Tribeca Playhouse is Michael D. Brown. Jackson's wife Mary is portrayed by Genie Sloan; the salacious Major who takes one glance at Mary and exclaims: "Holy shit, look at that piece of black ass, will you?" is Peter Shaw; the bullying, sneering Colonel is Roy Barnitt; the looney military doctor who's investigating (as in "Woyzeck") what a diet of (exclusively) green peas will do to Pvt. Jackson's urine is Darius Stone. Phyllis Johnson plays Mary's friend Margaret, and Marcuis Harris plays Jackson's friend Andy.

Cohen feels that a real feather in the production's cap is the appearance of the singer who calls herself Queen Esther. "She's unbelievable," he says. "Almost an incarnation of the young Billie Holiday. She walked in at an audition, sang one line of 'God Bless the Child,' I gave her a script and said: 'Please read this.' "

Why do "Whoa-Jack!" at this particular time?

"Because it's the first thing I ever wrote, and having been afraid to touch it all these years, I felt that for my own growth as a director, it was the right time to bring it to life. Also because at the present moment there's a real, invidious lack of attention to matters of race."

In the theater?

"In the country, where it's become part of the dialogue to say: 'Well, now there's an even playing field . . . Let's get rid of the quotas . . . "

One wonders if playwright/director Jeff Cohen is braced for a possible black backlash along the lines of the recent ill-informed teapot tempest over Carolivia Herron's "Nappy Hair" or the even iller-informed perennial idiocies over Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn."

"I've thought about it," he says. "This middle-class Jewish boy [from Baltimore] writing a play that ends in a lynching. As is shown by 'Parade' " -- the musical at the Vivian Beaumont about the 1913 lynching in Georgia of Leo Frank, a Jew from Brooklyn -- "the application of violence and discrimination is not limited to any particular racial minority."

Or to any place. Not even Woyzeck's Germany.

WHOA-JACK! An adaptation by Jeff Cohen of Georg Buchner's "Woyzeck." A Worth Street Theater production, directed by Cohen, through Feb. 15 at the Tribeca Playhouse, 111 Reade St., (212) 604-4195. (Interview courtesy Downtown Express.)

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