David Marks, playing a prim legislator, has but to utter the word “purity” from the stage of the Shakespeare Theatre to set the audience a-tittering. He ventures further an instant later, opining in that irresistibly stuffy legislative fashion that said virtue “is the one subject of really national importance nowadays” upon which he quite naturally gets guffaws.
Dear Oscar Wilde, so popular as a dramatic subject lately; how has he contrived to be so amusingly topical as well? His A Woman of No Importance always hid scathing social criticism behind the exquisite trappings of drawing-room comedy, but it’s a marvel, 105 years after the play’s premiere, to discover how freshly bitter the author’s outrage still seems and how keen his barbs remain.
That’s not to say that Michael Kahn’s staging refocuses the play an unusually schizophrenic vehicle in which a fallen woman exacts a kind of belated justice on the man who ruined her decades before on the peccadilloes of politicians. Far from it: A Woman is still a play about men. A play dominated by women, to be sure, but also a rousing celebration of the dandy and a round condemnation of a social double standard that did and still does make the battle of the sexes an uneven fight.
And it’s not to say that Kahn has entirely managed to bring the play’s uneasy mix of low-rent melodrama and highbrow banter into balance. A Woman traffics in self-sacrifice, but not as gracefully as Lady Windermere’s Fan; in the exposure of hypocrisy, but not as compassionately as An Ideal Husband; and in the triumph of style over substance, but not as brilliantly as The Importance of Being Earnest. The villain (Ted van Griethuysen), a Wilde doppelganger armed with the author’s best epigrams, is still the most amusing character, though Kahn has rendered him both more serious and more substantive by restoring a fervid speech that explains his moral position in rhetoric clearly derived from the weightier musings of Wilde and his hero Walter Pater. Conversely, the wronged Mrs. Arbuthnot’s lectures, even in the hands of an actress as accustomed to speechifying as Designing Women’s Dixie Carter, still seem less impassioned outbursts than imposed arias, and they bring the action to a dead halt. The most jarring monologue, though, comes not from Mrs. Arbuthnot but from her eventual champion, the puritan Hester Worsley (Tari Signor), who attacks English society and its decadence in language right out of Salome: “It has blinded its eyes and stopped its ears. It lies like a leper in purple. It sits like a dead thing smeared with gold. It is wrong, all wrong.”
And so in the second half, when Wilde has abandoned bright repartee for bitter reproaches, the play takes on an overheated air that inevitably spells trouble: One particular speech, for Wilde a miracle of vulgar naked emotionalism, finds Carter’s Mrs. Arbuthnot pouring out her heart to the son she bore of her shame, only to be met with a stubborn reply. In a better-structured play, the son’s obtuseness might be devastating; here, despite Carter and Kahn’s best efforts, it provokes another audience giggle-fit.
Otherwise, though, the Shakespeare’s production is an elegant success. Carter is a strikingly dramatic figure in Robert Perdziola’s black velvets, and somehow her outsized glamour makes that overwrought Act 4 speech seem more natural. Van Griethuysen, though perhaps a trifle older than Lord Illingworth’s 40 or so, invests the part with both an aura of decay and a predatory aspect that raise questions about why he’s suddenly so interested in having a private secretary half his age.
That the son who’s been offered that position is played by the handsome Matthew Greer adds a frisson, at least to anyone who saw that coal-haired actor cavorting, quite naked, in Oscar Wilde’s bedroom as the curtain rose this past summer on Broadway’s The Judas Kiss. Yes, said cavorting was with a chambermaid, but a later scene made plain that Greer’s hotel-waiter character was an ambitious and ingratiating lad. Add that memory to the elements of Wilde’s character in Lord Illingworth, to a little byplay Kahn has staged in A Woman between a handsome footman and a character named Lord Alfred, and to the well-documented penchant of Wilde and his real-life lover Lord Alfred Douglas for rough trade, and well, let’s just say the web of inferences gets almost too sticky. In any case, Greer gives his Gerald Arbuthnot a natural enough mix of callowness and heart, which makes the occasional miscalculation in his performance pardonable.
Catherine Flye makes class-consciousness a stitch as the prim Lady Caroline Pontefract, who can express disdain with a well-enunciated consonant: “Ah, yes, the young man who has a post in a ban-k.” Jennifer Mendenhall is wide-eyed and quite perfectly vapid as the lovely but light-headed Lady Stutfield; Patricia Kilgarriff presents a peculiar sort of worldly naif as good-hearted hostess Lady Hunstanton; Sybil Lines is adept with throaty rasp and heavy ennui as Mrs. Allonby, a foil and fencing partner for Lord Illingworth; and Signor comes off beautifully pale and taut as the puritan who eventually unbends enough to forgive the sinners around her.
That lesson, among Wilde’s other more strained admonishments, at least might be worth repeating in today’s heated political climate: That we’re none of us as good as we insist others be.
Those who are, of course, may look to Lady Hunstanton, who can’t seem to understand how things have gotten so out of hand at the executive level: “Dear Mr. C____ is ruining the country. I wonder Mrs. C_____ allows him.”