By Joseph Hurley
A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, by Oscar Wilde, a reading directed by John Benjamin Hickey. Starring Blair Brown and John Slattery. At the Irish Repertory Theatre as part of the New York Public Library’s "A Man of Some Importance: Oscar Wilde and The Performing Arts."
You might find it extremely difficult to find anyone, even among theater professionals, who has ever read Oscar Wilde’s "A Woman of No Importance," much less seen it performed. The play, written in 1893, just one year after "Lady Windermere’s Fan," and two years before both "An Ideal Husband" and "The Importance of Being Earnest," has long been considered unproduceable. It has wide-ranging and unpredictable tonal shifts, moving from dazzling epigrammatic social satire to farce to near-tragedy from scene to scene without warning.
The stage of the Irish Repertory Theatre was the scene recently of an inspired reading of the unfamiliar work, part of the New York Public Library’s invaluable ongoing survey of the Dublin-born writers work, invoked as a commemoration of the Dublin-born author’s death in Paris on Nov. 30, 1900.
For anyone lucky enough to have been in the audience when "A Woman of No Importance" was performed with a cast of Broadway performers on their night off and Rep regulars, it is hard to understand why the fast-moving play has been thought to be so problematic.
The heart of the play is a struggle over the education and the destiny of a young man, Gerald Arbuthnot, the illegitimate son of a woman who calls herself Mrs. Arbuthnot and whose impeccable character and veiled identity give the play its ironic title, and the equally mysterious Lord Illingworth.
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Director John Benjamin Hickey was fortunate to get Blair Brown and John Slattery, in their free nights from, respectively, "Copenhagen" and "Betrayal" on Broadway, to play the parents. Erik Singer, currently playing the title role in the Irish Rep’s hit revival of Brendan Behan’s "The Hostage," played the naive Gerald.
Backing them up, as a range of late 19th century British social strivers and achievers in a strong 11-actor cast, were Mary Louise Wilson, Paddy Croft, Schuyler Grant, John Seidman, Jennifer Van Dyck, Terry Donnelly, John Leighton and Rob Breckenridge, the last-named handling the stage directions with style and grace and, at one point, playing Farquhar, a butler Wilde wryly named in honor of George Farquhar, the 17th Century Irish playwright.
Like "An Ideal Husband," another Wilde play thought to be difficult until Sir Peter Hall directed it triumphantly in London and on Broadway a few seasons ago, "A Woman of No Importance" centers on a mysterious woman out of place in the social surroundings in which she finds herself. In "Husband," she is a blackmailer; in "A Woman of No Importance," she is a prideful woman of steely character who can be seen as a sort of early feminist figure.
"A Woman of No Importance" is the source of the celebrated Wildean dismissal of the English cult of foxhunting as "the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable."
It also contains at least two statements, put into the mouths of his characters, which seem to express aspects of Oscar Wilde at his most unguardedly candid. "Nothing is serious except passion," says one figure in the dense, complicated play. "The intellect is not a serious thing and never has been. It is an instrument on which one plays, that is all."
Elsewhere we hear "Society is a necessary thing, and women rule society."
The power and validity of "A Woman of No Importance," presented as part of the library’s series "A Man of Some Importance: Oscar Wilde and the Performing Arts," were astonishing and revelatory.