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Isabel Keating and Adam Rothenberg in
Lady Windermere's Fan
(Photo © Richard Feldman)
In Lady Windermere's Fan, his first comedy, Oscar Wilde mined a certain matrix that would come to demarcate his favored stomping ground: virtuous vs. licentious, "tedious" vs. "charming." It's easy to spot where his sympathies tend -- toward the quadrant pairing the latter qualities. It's also easy to spot which characters will be the fun ones to track in director Moíses Kaufman's quite charming revival at the Williamstown Theatre Festival's gorgeous new mainstage theater. (The play also marks the beginning of new artistic director Roger Rees' tenure.)

Who won't be fun is the title character, a 21-year-old novice wife who imagines herself two-timed (Samantha Soule), nor her stalwart husband (Corey Brill), who tries to disabuse her of the notion, but can't reveal his real motive in funneling funds to the mysterious Mrs. Erylnne (Jean Smart), a woman of questionable reputation. No, the one to lap up, as he tries to sweet talk young Lady Windermere out of her stays by arguing a case of tit-for-tat, is Lord Darlington (Adam Rothenberg, whose lupine insouciance recalls Laurence Harvey).

Who could withstand such raw animal magnetism? The uptight lady of the house, perhaps, but not her self-appointed advisor, the Duchess of Berwick (a sparkling Isabel Keating), a font of imperious opinions who presages the redoubtable Lady Bracknell, especially in her firm handling of the marriageable daughter she hopes to unload by season's end (Elliotte Crowell, playing tongue-tied most eloquently). It's a treat to see Keating's Duchess catch a case of the tizzies in the company of the "thoroughly depraved" Darlington, whose bad-boy forelock signals his status as rake. "What a charming, wicked creature!" she gushes as he exits. "I like him so much. I'm quite delighted he's gone!"

This one-two reversal is at the heart of Wildean wit. The play is packed with signature bon mots -- almost a surfeit thereof -- but they never become tiresome or overwrought. The semi-melodramatic plot admittedly creaks (as Wilde himself surely knew), but Kaufman cranks it along gamely, giving the proceedings a headlong pace.

By rights, the most interesting character -- being presumably the wickedest -- ought to be the fallen woman, Mrs. Erlynne. However, Smart is not quite up to the company she keeps. Her accent is patchy (beginning with her pronunciation of "Windermere"), and suggests a social exile spent farther abroad than Italy, the usual refuge for miscreants of her class. Worse, her body language is American as well: had Mrs. Erlynne not committed an extramarital faux pas, she might have been barred from the drawing rooms of her day merely for striding about like a laborer or, mid-discourse, letting her arms hang limp as a pair of uninhabited opera gloves.

Smart also makes some odd interpretive choices. In remonstrating the errant Lady Windermere, Smart adopts the bossy, hectoring tone of one of those British supernannies, rather than pleading directly from the heart, having learned hard lessons from her own mistakes. It's not until Mrs. Erlynne touches on the likely impact on Lady Windermere's infant son (a turning point that can't help suggesting Wilde's concerns for his own cherished children, given the double life he led) that Smart summons some compelling emotions. Once that connection is made, she's pulled into the play and no longer stands apart.

Smart is not the only principal who fails to excite. Soule may be stuck with playing a prig, but she doesn't lend the role much passion, except when waxing righteous or wronged. However, Benjamin Walker shines in the truly superfluous role of Mr. Cecil Graham, a callow youth who, like Wilde himself, acts merely as piquant observer. Walker's got the surface down, which in Wilde is often what counts most.

Speaking of appearances, this otherwise lush production -- Neil Patel's sets suggest, with a few deft strokes, a world of entrenched luxury and leisure -- is guilty of cutting some inexplicable corners. Why are there those patently fake flowers that we find Lady Windermere fussily arranging at the start of the play (ah, metaphor), when roses are in season? It's a short run; surely the budget would permit some real ones (especially given that the new theatre itself cost $50 million). And for appearance's sake, why not spring for wigs all around and not just for the star. We shouldn't be seeing improvised upsweeps bristling with bobby pins.

So I'm being picky. The main impression one comes away with from this production is of a competent -- and at times even inspired -- service to Wilde's diamantine prose, laid out in this starter play like gems on vintage velvet.

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