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Smart mouths
Arcadia, Lady Windemere’s Fan, Dinner with Friends

Oscar Wilde subtitled The Importance of Being Earnest "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People." Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a serious comedy for serious people, as is Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan — when it isn’t busy being an aphoristic melodrama. Although each has been accused of being brittle, Wilde and Stoppard both boast an acuteness of language that strikes awe in the ear. Here, however, one hears Stoppard at the top of his form: Arcadia, set in two eras but the same place, is the most dazzling of the British playwright’s clever comedies. Lady Windemere’s Fan, on the other hand, is not Wilde’s best effort. One of its characters famously remarks, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." In this play, which precedes An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest by three years, Wilde’s gutter is Ibsenite, and his stars flash only intermittently.

Arcadia (at the Publick Theatre, in repertory through September 4) is set in 1809-’12 and the early 1990s at Sidley Park, a sizable stately home in Derbyshire noted for its landscape. According to Stoppard, "Nothing much need be said or seen of the exterior beyond." But Publick Theatre honcho Diego Arciniegas had the bright idea to stage the piece at his al fresco theater on the Charles, so that the landscape, being transformed in the earlier period from the classic style of the Enlightenment to the wild tangle of the Romantic period, intrudes upon the drawing room. And he has put together a more than competent production of this stimulating work, on whose 20th-century component airplanes intrude less jarringly than on that of the 19th.

Stoppard has been performing philosophical sleight of hand since his 1966 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but Arcadia is his crowning achievement: stuffed with thought, yet not without feeling. In fact, sexual feeling is, as one character points out, "the attraction which Newton left out." Interweaving two stories and speculation on everything from landscape and literature to chaos theory, the play comes down to the way in which hormones trump determinism and the assertion that, in the war between art and science, "It’s all trivial. . . . It’s wanting to know that makes us matter."

In 1809, 22-year-old Septimus Hodge is tutoring 13-year-old math prodigy Thomasina Coverly on her father’s estate. The garden transformation is under way, and other shenanigans afoot include illicit congress in the gazebo, challenges to duels, and the presence of Hodge’s Oxford chum, the then-unheralded Lord Byron. All of this sets the scene for the late-20th-century researches, conducted in the same house, of a trio of burgeoning scholars: Valentine Coverly, a fledgling mathematician who subjects Thomasina’s century-ahead-of-its-time exploration of iterated algorithms to the benefit of an electronic calculator; Hannah Jarvis, who’s attempting to trace "the decline from thinking to feeling" through the "hermit" installed in the early 19th century at Sidley Park; and Bernard Nightingale, a glib if flamboyant Byron scholar who turns up to probe a literary mystery involving the Childe Harold author, smoking pistols, and a quick exit to Europe.

Arciniegas stages this double-drawing-room piece against the backdrop of Nature — a favorite of its subjects — and there are some spot-on performances. Susanne Nitter nails Hannah’s cool, intellect, ambition, and repressed passion. Nigel Gore has a showboating turn as Bernard. Lewis Wheeler is in dashing period form as Septimus, with eyebrows that would give Joan Crawford a run for her money. And Eric Hamel is earnest yet smoldering as Valentine, who doesn’t want to believe in Thomasina but is nonetheless seduced. You will be too, by Arcadia.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival begins a new era with Lady Windemere’s Fan (through July 17): this is British actor/director Roger Rees’s inaugural season as artistic director of the 50-year-old summer venue, which now moves from the auditorium-like Adams Memorial Theatre into a beautiful new theater-and-dance complex designed by William Rawn. (Hence the echoes in the three-tiered 550-seat mainstage of Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall.) But Moisés Kaufman’s staging of Lady Windemere’s Fan sounded more intriguing than it turns out to be. Kaufman is the author of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which combines trial transcripts and Wilde writings to make the case that Wilde was prosecuted less for being a "sodomite" than for insisting that art be independent of morality. One therefore hoped that Kaufman’s perspective on Wilde might provide a subtext for his staging, that he might touch on the daring beneath the well-made play. Instead, what’s on view at Williamstown is a conventional if opulent production featuring Jean Smart, of Designing Women and Frasier, as well-dressed, self-possessed "loose woman" Mrs. Erlynne, who keeps her flagrant secret but loses her mother’s heart.

The play is set on the 21st birthday of the radiant yet puritanical Lady Windemere. She’s been married two years to a wealthy young man who, she’s told in the opening scene, has entered into a liaison with Mrs. Erlynne, who has recently turned up in London after a long absence to wrap society swains around her finger while striking scandal into the hearts of their female counterparts. Lady Windemere has strict rules about what constitutes "good" and "bad," but what happens in the course of the play, in which she almost commits an indiscretion but is saved by the good act of a bad woman, teaches her that it may be necessary to blur the lines a bit.

Wilde mixes irony with deft condemnation of hypocritical Victorian morality. But the plot, which hinges on Mrs. Erlynne’s true identity and whether Lady Windemere will discover it, is belabored. Moreover, Lady Windemere should question any social order in which she and her stick of a husband are given no good lines, with all the bons mots falling to the dandified if devoted Lord Darlington, his tippling chums, and the splendidly gotten-up, regret-ridden floozy herself. Samantha Soule nevertheless makes an interestingly impressionable Lady Windemere; Corey Brill, however, is a simp as the husband. Smart manages a stately maternal sangfroid, Jack Willis provides comic relief as a smitten old lord, and Adam Rothenberg brings dash to Darlington, who gets the epigram "I can resist everything except temptation." If only Wilde had supplied more such memorable frippery — or Kaufman had managed to highlight it while tripping more lightly over Ibsen’s ghost.

Wilde’s attacks on Victorian morality earned him time in Reading Gaol; Dinner with Friends (at Gloucester Stage Company through July 17) earned Donald Margulies a Pulitzer Prize. When it comes to wordsmithery, Margulies is not in the same showy category as Stoppard or Wilde. He is, however, a humane and eloquent writer — though his best play, Collected Stories, was not the one that got him his Pulitzer. The one that did is receiving a disarmingly genuine outing at Gloucester Stage Company, under Scott Edmiston’s direction, on a clean, clever set by Jenna McFarland that’s a little like a teakwood puzzle.

First produced in 1998, Dinner with Friends examines the aftershocks in two marriages when one cracks open. Beth is dining with long-time chums Karen and Gabe when, between the grilled lamb and the polenta cake, she lets out an anguished wail and announces that husband Tom, ostensibly away on business, has left her and the kids. All this can seem myopic and not a little yuppified in an age where far worse things happen to far less privileged people. But Margulies, though he makes little case for the callow Tom, puts his finger on the indefinable loss that accompanies growing into responsible maturity — "when practical matters begin to outweigh . . . abandon." And at GSC, where Anne Gottlieb and Robert Pemberton are the volatile Beth and Tom and Barlow Adamson and Julie Jirousek the grounded if smug Gabe and Karen, the Dinner, if more sophisticatedly sauced than substantial, is cooked just right.

Issue Date: July 15 - 21, 2005
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