Late 19th-century England may have imprisoned, ostracized, and fatally broke the health of Oscar Wilde, but not before he took up his pen and successfully dueled with British hypocrisy in several successful social satires.
Lady Windermere's Fan is a feisty example, being staged by Brown University Theatre and Sock and Buskin through November 13.
It's a bravely quirky production (directed by Lowry Marshall) that tries to clamp together two disparate styles, though the glue never sets. Understatement is the mode that Wildean wit was made for, needing nothing more than an occasional lifted eyebrow to cue the laughs. Broadening the humor to farcical dimensions ironically mutes the fun, as we may well worry that wildly gesticulating parlor guests might knock over the furniture.
As with Wilde's A Woman of No Importance, written immediately afterward, and his later An Ideal Husband, the play deals with the conflict between society's ideals and reality, between what appears to be and what actually is.
Things start off briskly and complexly for Lady Windermere (Sarah Gage). Not only is she worried that her husband of two years is having an affair, but she is being not so subtly implored by one of his friends, Lord Darlington (Gerrit Thurston), to have one herself. She soon learns, as most of upper-class London already knows, that her husband has been paying the bills of a recent arrival to town, the attractive Mrs. Erlynne (Madeleine Heil). Lord Darlington, who eventually reveals that his attentions are deeply felt, flirtatiously suggests that she console herself with equivalent male companionship.
She confronts Lord Windermere (Dan Gonon), who not only denies that anything inappropriate is going on but also insists that his wife invite Mrs. Erlynne to the birthday party that she is having that evening, so that the woman will be accepted by good society. It's hard to imagine a more fraught conflict between this husband and wife. Maintaining the dignity of a wrongly accused gentleman, Gonon modulates from cool patience to simmering anger, but not beyond. Gage goes farther, since the wife is fueled by righteous indignation, but keeps the fury of the young woman grounded.
No such tethering to earth restricts the enthusiasms of the Duchess of Berwick (Emma Johnson), who in the opening scene had revealed the scandalous gossip. The character's outsized sense of self-importance would make her amusing enough, but this production inflates her to commedia dell'arte proportions, mugging like a gargoyle and spinning her arms like an intently expressive windmill. Instead of providing comic relief, the Duchess intrudes like a platoon of paratrooper clowns.
There is a similar wincifying super-sizing of Lord Augustus Lorton (Skylar Fox), who has taken a fancy to Mrs. Erlynne, and who thereby comes across as foolishly rather than seriously interested. A welcome bit of restraint is accomplished with a visitor from Australia, whom Wilde has already made fun of by naming him Mr. Hopper (a well-accented Christopher Thompson).
As an aside, let me mention Wilde's amusement with one opportunity, gentlemen convening over brandy and cigars. They pass around bon mots like bon-bons: "A man who moralizes is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralizes is invariably plain"; "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes"; "I can resist everything except temptation." Wilde empties his notebook.