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One for the Quipper

Center Stage Grapples with a Particularly Pun-Riddled Script from Oscar Wilde

Mannered: Felicity Jones (with, from left, Michael Bakkensen and David Cromwell) actually delivers her pithier lines to the other actors in Lady Windermere's Fan.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 10/6/2004

At Center Stage through Oct. 24

Oscar Wilde had a genius for epigram, and many of his most enduring lines can be found in his 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan. In the opening scene, Lord Darlington sprawls on the parlor furniture and flirts unabashedly with his young, newlywed host, Lady Windermere, who protests that he mustn’t pay her such extravagant compliments. He can’t help himself, he declares, “I can resist everything except temptation.” It’s the kind of witty, pithy quip that can be a gift to an actor, but it can also be a trap. For if a performer relishes the cleverness of the remark too much, if he seems to wink at the audience, he’s no longer a character in a play but rather a stand-up comedian. When that happens, the plot’s momentum grinds to a halt and the illusion of a fictional world crumbles.

That’s the mistake Ethan Flower makes as Darlington in the current Center Stage production of Lady Windermere’s Fan. “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad,” he purrs with a smirk; “people are either charming or tedious.” Flower’s Darlington is quite charming, but he’s so busy flirting with the audience that he forgets that a play is going on. And he’s not the only one. Few actors can resist such temptations, and that’s why we rarely get to see any of Wilde’s plays other than the indestructible The Importance of Being Earnest. But the playwright’s other scripts can be staged effectively, if only the actors can withstand the lures of Wilde’s witticisms and stay in character.

The actress Felicity Jones does this splendidly, and once she enters the Center Stage production recovers from its early stumbles and rises to an impressive finish. Jones is Mrs. Erlynne, the mysterious woman who has come to London six months earlier and has enchanted most of the men in the high society where the play takes place. Lord Windermere in particular has been seen visiting Mrs. Erlynne several times a week and is rumored to have given her large sums of money. That’s why Darlington has become such an emboldened flirt, and that’s why Lady Windermere is shocked when her husband insists on inviting the strange woman to Lady Windermere’s birthday party.

Jones has not only the high cheekbones and vertical forehead of Katharine Hepburn but also her regal bearing, a confidence that always seems amused by the consternation she produces in others. When she delivers one of Wilde’s epigrams, such as “I see that there are just as many fools in society as there used to be—so pleased to find that nothing has altered,” she aims the cleverness not at the audience but at the man she is trying to manipulate. There is always a point to her remarks beyond their wit, and that keeps the story line moving.

Mrs. Erlynne is not Lord Windermere’s mistress but rather his mother-in-law, a woman with such a shameful past that her innocent daughter must continue to believe she is orphaned. As a result, the other characters make a series of rash, wrongheaded assumptions that allow Wilde to get off one zinger after another about society’s hypocrisy. And several of the supporting performers—Mary Catherine Wright as the Duchess of Berwick, Laurence O’Dwyer as Mr. Dumby, and Trent Dawson as Cecil Graham—are as deft with the epigrams as Jones. In the final act, however, something remarkable happens. Director Irene Lewis flips the mood from farcical to poignant, allowing pregnant pauses to seep into what had been rapid-fire banter. In Jones’ telegraphic face, we can see the pull of motherhood after long years of neglect, and she makes a noble sacrifice that she has to camouflage as crass cynicism. And in the blankly naive faces of the newlywed Windermeres (played marvelously straight by Mahira Kakkar and Michael Bakkensen) we can see how easily such nobility is misunderstood.

Unfortunately, this achievement is undermined not only by the show’s clumsy beginning but also by Center Stage’s perennial weakness for cutesy, high-concept gimmicks. This time, Tony Straiges’ set is dominated by a giant scrim painted like the fan of the title, and the set changes are turned into soft-shoe dance numbers. These literal-minded stunts may sound good in production meetings, at post-show discussions, and on grant proposals, but during the play itself they are nothing but distracting.

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