Zadie Smith, the acclaimed British novelist whose works like “White Teeth” have explored the experience of nonwhite immigrants in the U.K., has written her first (and, she claims, only) play — and it’s a characteristically impressive exercise in adapting a classic literary text for a more contemporary setting. Just as her 2005 novel “On Beauty” reimagined E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” with a mixed-race British family in an American academic town, she now seeks to update Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” in a North London pub packed with the British equivalent of a melting pot of races, ethnicities and types.
“The Wife of Willesden,” which opened Thursday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is surprisingly faithful to Chaucer’s original “The Wife of Bath” — including Smith’s daring decision to tell the entire story in (mostly) rhymed couplets. The setting is a pub, brilliantly designed by Robert Jones (who also did the costumes), that features a curved wall of wooden shelves along the back of the stage revealing a library of bottles, along with dangling lamp shades of different styles and heights over Persian rugs with some bar seating.
There we meet Jessica Murrain as a stand-in for the author, outfitted in Smith’s distinctive head scarf and hunched over a laptop before she addresses us to introduce the proceedings. Chaucer’s parade of storytellers has been reimagined as an open-mic night, with a prime place reserved for a local legend known as Alvita, a five-times married woman who hails from Willesden — a section of London, far from Bath, that is known for its diverse population, including a large contingent of Jamaican heritage.
Poured into her red dress and with a head of cornrows flowing from her head, Clare Perkins is a force of nature as Alvita. She commands the mic, and the stage, as few performers can — and she shares a feminist-forward yarn that takes on all critics of her life choices — from her churchy aunt (Ellen Thomas) to her often-scoffing ex-husbands, who are represented on stage in all their variety. “You think five’s a lot?” she asks at one point. “I could have had 10.”
Indeed, she offers a spirited ode to sexual liberation, and to women seeking out men for the one thing that she cannot as easily achieve on her own: pleasure. And Perkins fully owns both her experience, as a fiftysomething woman with curves, and her continuing allure to men of all ages and backgrounds. Seducing one younger suitor, she proclaims herself “the fittest, finest Fly Gal you ever seen. Beyoncé look try next to me.” Despite some dance breaks in which Alvita and her men try to out-twerk each other, most of the raunch in this production is decidedly verbal. Alvita is more of a “tell, don’t show” kinda woman — which admittedly leads to some narrative lulls over the course of the 1 hour, 40-minute production.
In some ways, Smith seems hamstrung by her source material, often unwilling to break free from its strictures. Just as in Chaucer’s original, we get a very long prologue from Alvita recounting her marital experiences and philosophy of life — followed by her actual tale, a fable in which a convicted rapist is given an opportunity to escape the death penalty if he does a year of penitence and can discern what women actually want. He eventually arrives at the correct answer — women want to be the boss — but that conclusion seems like a restatement of everything she already laid out in her supposed prologue.
Smith is enormously clever, but she takes her cribbing too far — or at least too literally, especially for theatergoers who missed Chaucer in school or neglected to do some pre-show homework (even Googling the SparkNotes summary will yield valuable insights). And her approach, which also replies on the use of Jamaican patois and North London-isms that may be alien to American audiences, also points up some missed opportunities. At one point, Alvita repeats an Ovid yarn about Midas — whose loyal wife couldn’t keep her hubby’s dirty little secret about having donkey ears, though she only blabbed to the water in a marsh. Then, in a direct lift from Chaucer, Alvita urges those who want “more Midas — if that’s your cup of tea — go to O, Ovid, New York Public Library.” What’s ironic about this throwaway line is that in Ovid’s original, contrary to what Chaucer and Smith’s heroines suggest, it’s Midas’s barber and not his wife who spills his secret. Men turn out to be the biggest gossips — a point you’d expect Smith’s Alvita to want to make.
No matter. “The Wife of Willesden” emerges as more than just an academic exercise in precocity, thanks in part to director Indhu Rubasingham’s clever staging. (When one of the cast’s five men is briefly cast as Jesus, a gilded bar tray is lifted like a halo behind his head.) The show’s real secret sauce is the performance of human dynamo Clare Perkins. The actress embodies the message of the show, proclaiming the power of women to seize our attention, and our interest, and hold it. Tight.