On Saturday, Dave and I went to the opening of Lady Windermere’s Fan at Cal Shakes. It’s a very handsome production with a killer cast — Stacy Ross, Peter Callender, and James Carpenter are longtime favorites of ours, and Dan Clegg, Aldo Billingslea, Emily Kitchens, and Nick Gabriel have all impressed us several times in the past few years. For me, a little of Danny Scheie’s camp generally goes a long way, but he’s funny in matronly drag as an elderly duchess who pays a call on Lady Windermere in the first act.
Afterward, Dave told me about a science fiction publisher he knew of who used to say always put your best cover art on your weakest books, and I laughed, knowing exactly what he meant. Lady Windermere’s Fan has one of the strongest casts we’d seen at Cal Shakes in quite a while, but really, it’s a fairly weak play. It’s Oscar Wilde’s fourth play, and only the first of his comedies of upper-class society, and though there are signs of the wit and skill in dramatic construction that will culminate in The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde hadn’t yet gotten the knack of creating characters who are both satirical archetypes (which the characters in Fan certainly are) and distinctive (which they aren’t).
The play contains a fairly steady stream of witty epigrams (“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious”; “I can resist everything except temptation”; “A man who moralises is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralises is invariably plain”; “Good heavens! how marriage ruins a man! It’s as demoralising as cigarettes, and far more expensive”), but very few of them have all that much to do with either the characters who say them or the situations they’re said in. You could swap them around between characters, or move them from the first act to the fourth and vice versa, and for the most part it wouldn’t affect the play a bit.
Nor had Wilde figured out yet how he was going to break away from the popular Victorian sentimental comedy of his time. Earnest is brilliant and hilarious precisely because it isn’t an earnest play at all; there isn’t a noble character to be seen or a sincere speech to be heard from beginning to end. Fan, though, is too earnest by half. You can sort of see that Wilde is trying to pull off the Ibsen trick of beginning the play as though it were a conventional melodrama, only to start turning the clichés on their heads and revealing the hypocrisies underneath the conventional theatrical tropes; in Fan, though, Wilde makes only a half-hearted effort, and in the second half of the play he turns several of those sentimental clichés right side up again and presents them to us again in all seriousness.
Even so, the play has its strengths along with its weaknesses, and the cast makes the most of them. I thought Stacy Ross was particularly terrific as Mrs. Erlynne, the object of Lady Windermere’s scorn and, it seems to me, easily the best-drawn and most interesting character in the play. Emily Kitchens seems too young and ingenue-ish to be playing Lady Windermere, at least as I’ve imagined Lady Windermere to be when I’ve read the play, but Ms. Kitchens makes the part work well on her. The rest of the characters are not well drawn by Wilde, and they tend to blur together in the mind (in my mind, anyway), but the cast plays them all with invention and conviction and high spirits. It’s not a great play by a long shot, but it’s an interesting one and rarely done, and it’s getting a lively production here.