With his second feature, a follow-up to 1993’s caustic What Happened Was…, Tom Noonan offers a brutally frank, bittersweet take on marriage. The setup is straightforward: on a snowbound evening in their renovated farmhouse in upstate New York, Jack and Rita, a New Age husband-and-wife therapist team, are surprised by a visit from a patient, Cosmo, and his wife, Arlie. Ignoring Rita’s hints, Jack invites the couple to stay for dinner. What ensues is a series of revelations and shifting allegiances that gradually sheds light on the psyches of the four disparate characters and the dynamics of their relationships. Noonan, who wrote the script and the stage play from which it’s derived, obviously intended The Wife as a companion piece to his debut feature, a two-character black comedy about the hazards of a blind date. As he did for his first feature, he rehearsed the actors in a lengthy workshop then filmed them on location; their performances–Julie Hagerty as the high-strung, pill-popping Rita; Wallace Shawn as the nerdy, neurotic Cosmo; Karen Young (Noonan’s real-life wife) as the coarse, sexy Arlie, and Noonan himself as Jack, the smirky master of ceremonies–are impeccable. Though the marital malaise brings to mind Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–and Bergman too–Noonan for the most part shies away from theatrics, instead unfolding the dinner conversations gracefully and slyly so the climactic moments feel spontaneous. Also remarkable is his eye for detail: a small gesture or a facial tick or a table lamp speaks volumes about these characters. At times his satire misfires (must Jack look like an Old Testament prophet? should Arlie really triumph over the intellectual condescension around her?), and the film’s ending is problematic: After all this, are the characters still condemned to the cycles of emotional loneliness and impotence? Perhaps the answer lies in the visuals, designed by cinematographer Joe DeSalvo, which isolate them in pools of light and show them in distorted reflections. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday, January 10, 7:00 and 9:00; Saturday and Sunday, January 11 and 12, 3:00, 5:00, 7:00, and 9:00; and Monday through Thursday, January 13 through 16, 7:00 and 9:00; 773-281-4114. –Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.