Still, the two men eventually had much in common. As homosexual dramatists and relatively outside the upper-class -- Wilde an Irishman and Coward decidedly middle-class -- they delighted in giving English society the raspberry whenever the opportunity presented itself (or whenever they created the opportunity). Both could have claimed "shock" for a middle name, yet both could also insist on being recognized as moralists. It's tempting to wonder what ideas they might have exchanged, what gossip they might have shared if they'd been able to chat as Steve Allen had personages from different historical periods gab throughout his PBS series Meeting of Minds.
Since they didn't, anyone musing on what might have happened at such a confrontation has one place to turn: After the Ball, Coward's 1954 musical adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan, Wilde's play about wronged women. Tony Walton has now directed and designed the musical for the Irish Repertory Theatre, with mildly charming results. From some angles, it's inevitable that Wilde and Coward would somehow encounter one another, but from another angle, it sounds a terrible idea. By the 1950s, Coward -- who jolted the London stage in the '20s and delighted audiences through the '40s -- was looking like shopworn goods.
In the same year that After the Ball waltzed across the stage, Kenneth Tynan was commenting, "We need plays about cabmen and demi-gods, plays about warriors, politicians, grocers. I counsel aggression because, as a critic, I had rather be a war correspondent than a necrologist." Coward couldn't have been less in synch with Tynan. He was confiding to his diary, "[W]hether I like it or not, it is perfectly possible that I am out of touch with the times. I don't care for the present trends in literature or the theatre."
So while in 1954 Tynan was avoiding "necrologist" duties, Coward was taking them on. He dusted off Lady Windermere's Fan because, one can only assume, he was determined to restore whatever retrospective glamour could be restored to tried-and-true theater pieces. He took on Wilde despite once having said that he wasn't fond of the epigram school of writing. "To me," he stated in an obvious jibe at Wilde and his contemporaries, "the essence of good comedy writing is that perfectly ordinary phrases such as 'Just fancy!' should, by virtue of their context, achieve greater laughs than the most literate epigrams."
It's almost as if he perversely attempted to prove his point in After the Ball, which weathered a respectable 188-performance run in London but added nothing to Coward's acclaim. Trimming the Wilde script in order to fit in songs, Coward nevertheless kept many of the deathless epigrams intact, such as the often quoted "I can resist anything except temptation." But in this text, edited by Barry Day (who also contributed additional material), the clever talk registers as tame in a way that neither Wilde nor Coward were in their heydays. Put another way, Wilde's comedy of manners is far too mannerly here.
In After the Ball, as in Lady Windermere's Fan, the upright, uptight Lady Windermere (Kristin Huxhold) gets a lesson in genuinely good behavior when the fan that Lord Windermere (Paul Carlin) gave her as a birthday gift is discovered where it shouldn't be: in rooms occupied by the attractive, naughty Lord Darlington (David Staller). It takes the efforts of the mysterious, frowned-upon Mrs. Erlynne (Mary Illes) to save Lady Windermere for reasons having to do with a relationship that she doesn't want broadly disclosed. (How curious that Illes' surname is an anagram of the original Mrs. Erlynne in After the Ball, Mary Ellis!) When all conflict is resolved, the play that Wilde described as being "about a good woman" registers its point that goodness has little to do with society's stiff-necked definition of same. Of course, Wilde's redefined "good woman" was made retrograde after World War II, when good women proved themselves in far different ways than the self-sacrificing Mrs. Erlynne does. Today, Wilde's definition seems quaint.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to see Tony Walton's production, with its effectively genteel choreography by Lisa Shriver. For one, it's an American premiere for the tuner, and there may never be a follow-up staging. Also, the imaginative Walton makes the most of whatever budget he has, especially with the gowns worn during Lady Windermere's ball; they're mostly white with red flowers, and pretty as pictures. Coward's lyrics and melodies are too often examples of the master coasting, but he did conjure the jaunty "London at Night" and "Something on a Tray," a sly number that Kathleen Widdoes delivers with brio in the role of a society matron. Kristin Huxhold and Mary Illes sing well, as do Greg Mills as a plucky Australian and David Staller, doubling as the winking Lord Darlington and as the production's cellist. Coward's attempt to blend with Wilde is a Leicester Square stand-off, but at least some of its elements stand out.