IT IS INSTRUCTIVE TO COMPARE concurrent productions of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. This was the first of Wilde's four social comedies that climaxed in his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. The two productions are at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

The play can be better grasped via a revelatory new biography, Neil McKenna's The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, which concentrates on Wilde's hyperactive homosexual activities that previous biographers tended to underplay. Oscar's marriage to the puritanical Constance had started with his infatuation, but soon turned into his physical revulsion, what with his ever-increasing involvement with so-called renters--young male prostitutes--and other youths. Dangerous business, this, in Victorian England, where homosexuality was outlawed and elicited draconian sentences, and renters and their pimps could easily blackmail their clients, knowing that denunciation could land the accuser in jail.

But, as the biography makes clear, part of the excitement for Oscar was what he called "feasting with panthers," the danger, and the mostly unconscious but growing urge to get caught and become a martyr for the homosexual cause. Indeed, Melissa Knox's provocative Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide approaches Wilde from that angle: He could have easily avoided prison by escaping, like so many other homosexuals, to the Continent. In the play, much of which is covert autobiography, boredom with the very proper Constance translated into Lady Windermere's intransigent puritanism, and Oscar's curiously friendly relations with his blackmailers were represented heterosexually as dealings with manipulative women such as Mrs. Erlynne in Fan and Mrs. Cheveley in A Woman of No Importance--all part of an Ovidian deteriora sequor, flirting with the abyss.

What Oscar entitled A Good Woman until his formidable literary mother demanded something more alluring opened in early 1892 London as Lady Windermere's Fan. Already notorious for other writings, Wilde was making his dazzling debut as a dramatist. Never much interested in plot, he considered it a mere sop to the audience. "Art should never be popular," he wrote. "The public should try to make itself artistic." As critics at the time noted, several plot elements were nonchalantly lifted from sundry, mostly French, plays. But the public loved the wit, unaware that, as Peter Raby recently remarked, "this imitation of Englishness is at once parodic and unnervingly accurate, a subtle form of insult."

Lord Arthur and Lady Margaret Windermere have been happily married two years and have a six-month-old son. Lord Darlington, though a rake, is genuinely in love with Margaret; hinting at some dark reason, he urges her to elope with him. As she refuses, he declares he'll leave England for a long time. Enter the Duchess of Berwick and her insipid daughter, Lady Agatha, who never says more than "Yes, mamma." The Duchess, an earlier version of the daunting Lady Bracknell of The Importance of Being Earnest, imparts that Windermere has been seen much with a Mrs. Erlynne, divorcee and demimondaine, apparently giving her large sums of money.

Left alone, Lady Windermere breaks open her husband's secret, locked bankbook, with stubs of hefty checks made out to Mrs. Erlynne. Arthur arrives and asks Margaret to invite Mrs. Erlynne to her twenty-first-birthday ball that evening. Furious, she refuses, and threatens to strike the woman with the diamond-studded fan, her husband's birthday gift, if she should show up. Arthur himself sends the invitation, muttering that he dare not reveal Mrs. E.'s true identity to his wife: "The shame would kill her."

The Windermere marriage is an idealization of the Wilde one. Trouble comes with Arthur's frequentation of Mrs. E., who stands for Oscar's louche involvements with men. Like Constance Wilde, Margaret is a moralistic puritan--women like Mrs. E. "should never be forgiven"--hence her violence against her, and total intolerance for her husband. His anxiety is about the threatened revelation that Mrs. E. is her mother, who did not, as purported, die young, but ran off with a lover. The shame would kill Margaret. Shame, a concept that recurs throughout the play, was also, as McKenna shows, a contemporary code word for clandestine homosexual activity.

Lord Darlington, too, is an Oscar stand-in. When Margaret rebukes him for calling her "a fascinating Puritan," saying "the adjective was unnecessary," he replies, "I couldn't help it. I can resist everything except temptation." A typical Wildean epigram, it is a variation on The Picture of Dorian Gray's "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it." The temptations in Wilde's life, to be sure, were not just for unwelcome compliments.

When the Duchess calls Darlington wicked, he responds, "As a wicked man I am a complete failure. Why, there are lots of people who say I have never really done anything wrong. . . . Of course they only say it behind my back." What could be more whitewashing than turning one's sins into castigated virtues? "Life," he comments, "is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it." When the Duchess doesn't understand this, he explains, "Nowadays, to be intelligible is to be found out." The veiled meaning is that underlying amorality must not surface.

Badinage on one level, this is self-revelation and self-exculpation on a deeper one. Jests can be decoded. The Duchess complains, "Boys are so wicked. My boy is excessively immoral. You wouldn't believe at what hours he comes home. And he has only left Oxford a few months--I really don't know what they teach them there." Wilde, after orgying, would come home at all hours, if at all. He, too, went to Oxford, where his penchants emerged. Lord Alfred Douglas, his great love, was still at Oxford in 1892, and already involved in homosexual scandals.

Acted, the play requires tremendous charm, sophistication, and elegance, helped by the melody of British English. Washington's Darlington, Matthew Greer, manages passionate poignancy along with clever repartee. He is of the period, and his utterance has implications as well as meanings. In Williamstown, Adam Rothenberg plays a contemporary swinger, not very English, and with seemingly nothing to hide: There is no double bottom to his performance.

Williamstown's Duchess, Isabel Keating, is too young, too lightweight, and loses some terrific lines by lacking the right rhythms, emphases, and pauses--the twang of humor and the sting of wit. Washington's time-tested comedienne Nancy Robinette knows exactly how to extract every ounce of humor. So when she advises Margaret, "The wicked women get our husbands away from us, but they always come back to us, slightly damaged, of course," she knows how long to pause after "back to us," and change tempo, volume, and tone for "slightly damaged, of course." Next, in "And don't make scenes. Men hate them!" she finds the laugh in how much condescension can be squeezed out of the monosyllable "men."

And so on, through four acts. Mrs. Erlynne in both productions is a star of TV's Designing Women, but whereas Washington's Dixie Carter, except in her strongly enacted scenes of passion, keeps a twinkly-eyed sense of humor, Williamstown's handsome Jean Smart is a bit of a stick, uncompelling at both wit and emotion. Of course, much depends on the directors. The Shakespeare Theatre production was directed by the gifted Britisher Keith Baxter, actor, director, and playwright--a man who knows how to stage such an English classic with due period flavor. Williamstown's Moisés Kaufman was presumably picked for having directed Off Broadway the successful Gross Indecency, a docudrama he devised from the transcripts of Wilde's three trials. I found it pedestrian, crass in its interpolations, and wretchedly cast.

Kaufman's other main achievements were The Laramie Project, a docudrama about the hate murder of a young homosexual, and I Am My Own Wife, a one-man play based on the memoirs of a German transsexual. Well done, but nothing like Wilde's comedies. Especially unconvincing is the static staging of the birthday ball, with no lively continuity. And what poor casting! As the seasoned flâneur Cecil Graham, the inexperienced Benjamin Walker falls well short of Washington's Gregory Wooddell, even if, unlike him, Walker does wear in his lapel a green carnation (the homosexual's self-advertisement), as in 1892 did Cecil onstage, and Wilde and his young entourage in the audience. But Mr. Dumby, another social butterfly (played in Williamstown by the too-young but very funny Chandler Williams) should not, as a womanizer, be wearing it as well.

Washington's Lady Windermere, Tessa Auberjonois, is a bit too tomboyish; Williamstown's Samantha Soule is more aptly prim, but at the cost of colorlessness. Washington's Lord Windermere, Andrew Long, really suffers; Williamstown's Corey Brill is dopily wooden. Lord Augustus Lorton, the comic peer whom Mrs. E. manages to ensnare matrimonially, gets equal expertise from Washington's David Sabin and Williamstown's Jack Willis. But silly Lady Agatha is handled more effectively in Williamstown by Elliotte Crowell than by Washington's Tonya Beckman Ross. In neither production, though, is her suitor's Australian accent even remotely approximated. And where Baxter, in Washington, directs a British butler to behave with condign dignity, Kaufman inexcusably has him played as a campy smartass.

In Washington, Simon Higlett's scenery--whimsically including chez Windermere a bust of Wilde--is far superior to Williamstown's simplified, more modern decor by Neil Patel, though budget disparity doubtless played a role. Most important is the difference in the handling of accents, slightly steadier in Washington, and the delivery of epigrams, which is crisp and spontaneous there, producing steady laughter, as opposed to Williamstown's rather sporadic guffaws. But even in Washington, though less so than in Williamstown, period sense is incomplete. Is this a result of inadequate teaching, or of indifference by younger actors? Or could it all be explained by a line from A Woman of No Importance? "The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years. To hear them talk one would imagine they are in their first childhood. As far as civilization goes they are in their second."

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.

Next Page