Category: Archive

Bargain basement Wilde, Coward

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In the early 1890s, Wilde wrote a series of plays he called “trivial comedies for serious people,” the first of which, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” debuted in 1892.
Coward, at a point at which his productive career was experiencing a bit of a dip, found himself yearning for the success he had earlier experienced with operettas such as “Bitter Sweet” and “Conversation Piece,” and turned to “Lady Windermere’s Fan” as a vehicle he might manipulate into the kind of triumph he had enjoyed with those hits of his younger years.
As things worked out, the Wilde-Coward collaboration was less than an ideal pairing, as quickly becomes evident in the earnest and ambitious staging the admirable and energetic Irish Repertory Theatre has given the work, with Tony Walton acting as director and designer.
Wilde’s play, which many people seem to confuse with his “An Ideal Husband,” because of a number of plot similarities, is complicated to the point of confusion to begin with, and the songs the prolific Coward has provided, while jaunty enough, are far from his finest compositions, and serve mainly to slow the pace and divert the audience from the twists and turns of Wilde’s storytelling.
“After the Ball” which had a reasonable run in London’s West End, has never until now been seen in America, except for a couple of concert performances.
Reducing Wilde’s cast to a mere 10 individuals, the Irish Rep has nevertheless come up with a relatively lavish production that has, to a degree, a play-within-a-play aspect, wherein the vociferous Duchess of Berwick acts as a kind of narrator, dispensing fragments of rhymed verse that comment on the play itself and even on the limitations of the Rep’s playing areas.
Even though they’re delivered with wit and grace by the veteran actress Kathleen Widdoes, the bits of verse tend toward doggeral, and one sample in particular, in which the duchess pleads with the audience to “tell your friends, if you’ve enjoyed our show,” and otherwise keep quiet actually performs a disservice of sorts.
The moment gets its desired laugh, but it jolts the audience out of Victorian London and lands them unceremoniously on West 22nd Street.
The Rep program bears a strange credit that may serve to clarify at last a few of the production’s problems. With reference to Wilde’s original, it states that “After the Ball” was “edited from the original version and with additional material by Barry Day.”
Day, it turns out, is a former advertising man who became intimately involved with the Coward estate, and served as co-author of actor Graham Payn’s autobiography, “My Life with Noel Coward,” published in 1994.
As designer, Walton has made an ingenious accommodation to the Rep’s troublesome, bifurcated seating area, comprising two separate spaces, set more or less at right angles. For “After the Ball,” two sets of gigantic red curtains stretch diagonally across the stage, making the play’s action equally visible to both segments of the audience. Faux painted floorboards spread toward the play’s viewers, fanning out in a manner perhaps consciously symbolic of the item which gives Wilde’s original work its name.
The arrangement of the draperies suggests that wonders will be revealed when the curtains are parted, while, in reality, what the closed fabric conceals is a tiny stage corner barely large enough to house the production’s tiny orchestra, at least two members of which double as actors.
Anyone hoping to hear Coward’s enduring melodies, “I’ll See You Again,” “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart,” and the others, would do well to look elsewhere in the master’s canon. The “After the Ball” score is a relentlessly drab affair, even with the help of a couple of numbers that Walton, as director, had dragged in from other, earlier Coward endeavors.
Unfortunately, what the production’s songs do, for the most part, however nimbly they may be performed, is bring the proceedings to a full stop, giving the audience ample time to ponder the plotlines the music has interrupted so effectively.
Except for David Staller, who plays Lord Darlington and does yeoman service on the cello, and Paul Carlin, who does a tidy job as Lord Windermere, Walton’s 10-actor cast is new to the Irish Repertory Theatre.
At least six cast members have been imported from Walton’s recent Goodspeed Opera House production of Frank Loesser’s “Where’s Charley?”
There is a somewhat perfunctory quality about the performance, with otherwise able actors struggling to “sell” the show’s awkward patter songs and listless ballads.
The materials of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” are staples of the dramaturgy of the era, reputations gained and lost, assignations actual and imagined, and characters bearing mysterious personal histories studded with suggestions of scandal and disgrace.
Soprano Mary Illes, as Mrs. Erlynne, the recently arrived woman of mystery, gives the production’s most committed and successful performance, authentic in period detail, and graceful in terms of rendering the pallid music she’s been handed.
Three of the production’s female leads bear an almost familial resemblance to one another, in one case with justification, but the situation isn’t helped by the fact that their costumes, in white with red detail, are nearly identical.
The exception to this is the first gown worn by actress Illes, a scarlet affair meant, probably, to indicate the nature of the alluring Mrs. Erlynne’s questionable character. Unfortunately, when she’s placed against the production’s flame-colored curtaining, the red-on-red effect is decidedly peculiar.
“Lady Windermere’s Fan” isn’t really top-drawer Wilde, which probably explains why it isn’t staged more frequently. It can, however, prove effective when approached with skill and dedication.
Noel Coward’s “After the Ball” finds the writer and composer nowhere near the top of his game, and the posthumous “collaboration” between the two theatrical titans turns out to have been a kind of bargain-basement effort, reflecting credit, in the end, on neither participant.
The Irish Repertory Theatre, often creative and even daring in its choice of material, might have been best advised to go with Oscar Wilde and leave this particular effort on the part of Noel Coward in the dustbin, which appears to have been its home for the last half-century.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese