"A Woman of No Importance"
Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
Could Oscar Wilde have written this play? Such is the initial thought upon seeing "A Woman of No Importance", now on the Yale Rep stage. Sentimentality and melodrama abound, while Wilde's noted witticisms take second billing. But when one learns that the play was written in 1893, two years prior to Wilde's masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” this piece takes its place in the chronology. Wilde was still serving his apprenticeship, as it were.
The failings of this early piece lie in its faulty structure, its schizophrenic nature. Wilde has created two plays—the first half a witty, stinging satire, the second an unrelieved melodrama, complete with a villain and a heroine metaphorically tied to the railroad tracks. Yet "A Woman of No Importance" offers signs of Wilde's genius. His distinctive style comes through in the opening act, with a devastating take on the British aristocracy. His Victorian ladies and gentlemen are either idiotic or amoral, depending on their level of intelligence. And every one speaks of "nowadays", as if it were the ultimate, final moment in history—which actually, viewed from the twenty-first century, was a long time ago.
Of course one delights in Wilde’s wit, with such typical comments: "In my young days", says Lady Caroline, "one never met anyone in society who worked for their living. It was not considered the thing." And later, "I am not at all in favour of amusements for the poor, Jane. Blankets and coals are sufficient." Or Lord Illingworth, a spokesman for Wilde himself: "it is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true."
As to plot, Lord Illingworth, a dashing womanizer about to become an ambassador, hires a lad to be his secretary. The young man's mother, Mrs. Arbuthnot, objects strenuously. It turns out that Illingworth was the very man who seduced, impregnated, and abandoned her twenty years earlier. Against the backdrop of an English country party, the two parents struggle for control.
This current “Woman of No Importance” is a handsome but static production. Under direction of James Bundy (Yale Rep’s Artistic Director), lines are clearly-spoken and costuming is elegant. But characters, enjoying the charms of Lady Hunstanton’s estate, sit in a straight line while delivering their chatter and sipping tea—more often like a staged reading than a full production. But the action picks up in the second act, thanks to both play and production. It is here that witticisms fall away, and the life-and-death struggle ensues. It is also a time, alas, when all that makes Oscar Wilde so memorable disappears. Sentimentality and the high moral road prevail over stinging wit.
Bundy’s cast, however, creates a first-rate ensemble. Topping the list are Geordie Johnson as the decadent Lord Illingworth and Kate Forbes as the victimized Mrs. Arbuthnot. Among the ladies, Rene Augesen and Patricia Kilgarriff carry their lines and costumes beautifully, and Terence Rigby, as the Archdeacon, creates a delightful cameo.
All told, one wishes that a better—and better-known—Wildean piece had been the Yale Rep choice. Dare we say that this one is a play of no importance?
-- -Irene Backalenick
Mar. 30, 2008