CONNECTICUT CRITICS CIRCLE
A Woman of No Importance
Oh, How Witty am I
By Geary Danihy
Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance, which recently opened at the Yale Rep, is
really two plays in one. Well, actually not two plays, rather one "play" and a stand-up
(lounge, loll) routine designed to display the playwright's wit. Thanks to stellar acting by
Kate Forbes as Mrs. Arbuthnot, the "play" is quite engaging. However, the same cannot
be said for the stand-up routine, with its endless series of one- and two-liners delivered
mostly by Wilde's clone, Lord Illingworth (Geordie Johnson) in response to straight lines
delivered by the balance of the cast. The fact that the routine runs on for longer than the
"play" makes the overall experience somewhat taxing.
Director James Bundy, who is also the Rep's artistic director, is faced with the daunting
task of enlivening the first of the play's four acts, which consists primarily of eight
characters sitting in chairs trading gossip, barbs and bon mots. He provides the actors
with as much business as possible - Sir John (Anthony Newfield) and his clomping
overshoes; the dissolute Lord Alfred (John Doherty) and his cane -- but stasis is at the
heart of the act and there's not much Bundy can do about that. Thus, the audience is
asked to sit in on a slice of British upper class society as it attempts to entertain itself
while fending off boredom.
With the exception of Mrs. Arbuthnot and, in the final act, Lord Illingworth, Wilde has
created a series of caricatures rather than characters: Mrs. Allonby (Rene Augesen) and
Lady Stutfield (Felicity Jones), are the saucy, oh-so modern ladies whose sole purpose
is to scandalize; the henpecked Sir John; his domineering, reactionary wife, Lady
Caroline (Judith-Marie Bergan); the somewhat forgetful and dotty Lady Hunstanton
(Patricia Kilgarriff); the bumbling Archdeacon Daubeny (Terence Rigby); Mr. Kelvil
(Michael Rudko), a member of Parliament fixated on propriety; the naïve, earnest and
dutiful son, Gerald (Bryce Pinkham); and the opinionated American heiress, Miss Hester
Worsley (Erica Sullivan).
The banter and interaction between these characters are much as expected, and
although there are many humorous moments, there is nothing really going on between
them that serves to draw the audience to them. This is especially true when they
become mere foils for Lord Illingworth (read Wilde) and Mrs. Allonby (read Wilde's alter
ego), something that occurs with great frequency in acts two and three.
In the second act, after an extended dissertation on the "ideal man" delivered by Mrs.
Allonby and an upbraiding of Britain's nobility preached by Hester, Mrs. Arbuthnot, ill at
ease, appears and a certain electricity seems to arc across the stage - it is as if a living,
breathing person has just entered a room filled with automatons - all eyes, both on stage
and in the audience, are drawn to her.
Forbes, who last appeared locally in Long Wharf's production of The Price, plays Mrs.
Arbuthnot with a controlled passion and multi-layered humanity that is all the more
compelling given the multitude of flat characters that populate Wilde's play. As the
eponymous, much-wronged woman of no importance, Forbes is the driving, life-giving
force in almost every scene in which she appears.
Unfortunately, the audience must wait until the fourth act to be served a large helping of
Forbes' talent. What intervenes in much of the third act is another extended set-piece
that has Gerald feeding Lord Illingworth a string of straight lines that allows Wilde's
stand-in to wax witty:
GERALD: But haven't women got a refining influence?
ILLINGWORTH: Nothing refines but the intellect.
GERALD: Still, there are many different kinds of women, aren't there?
ILLINGWORTH: Only two kinds in society; the plain and the coloured.
GERALD: But there are good women in society, aren't there?
ILLINGWORTH: Far too many.
And so it goes…on and on.
It is only in the fourth act, especially with the confrontation between Mrs. Arbuthnot and
Lord Illingworth, that the evening truly comes to life. At a bit over two hours, it's a long
time to wait.
A Woman of No Importance runs through Saturday, April 12. For tickets or more
information call 432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org.
This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen News.