The witticisms land like so many dead weights in “A Woman of No Importance,” though they’re preferable, I suppose, to the ludicrously ripe melodrama into which the play descends. Returning to the Theater Royal Haymarket, where Oscar Wilde’s comedy premiered 110 years ago, the play makes the most meager of cases for its own durability, and Adrian Noble’s distinctly patchy production doesn’t help. The revival may do well — Wilde on the West End nearly always does — but a starry cast headed by Rupert Graves and the wonderful Samantha Bond can’t enliven a tiresome, even obnoxious evening that Americans, in particular, will be right not to like.
Yanks come in for a sizable share of Wilde’s putdowns, in what is beginning to seem a Haymarket requirement following a barrage of similar aspersions in David Hare’s recent inhabitant of this theater, “The Breath of Life.” Not all Wilde’s broadsides even make much sense — a quip about novels being American “dried goods” (huh?) met with an ominous opening-night silence indicating, thank heavens, that comic tastes have moved on.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to share in the disdain leveled toward the younger country given its embodiment in the play, the cringe-makingly earnest Hester Worsley (played by budding British thesp Rachael Stirling, who couldn’t seem less American). It is Hester who speechifies against the intransigence of the titled English swells among whom she finds herself.
The playwright surely shares Hester’s critique of the likes of the fierce-eyed Lady Caroline Pontefract (Caroline Blakiston), a woman on her fourth husband, having lost the previous three, we’re told, to “fright.” And yet, Lady Caroline, however formidable, is better stage company than the hectoringly winsome Hester, here representing an entire race. After all, as the caddish Lord Illingworth (Graves) puts it, “All Americans lecture. … I suppose it’s something to do with their climate.” (Again, huh?)
The fact is, for much of the first act, “Woman” seems content to trade far-from-vintage japes, sharpening its focus only once the none-too-important “woman” of the title, Mrs. Arbuthnot (Bond), enters Peter McKintosh’s perfunctorily appointed set. (The designer seems more or less to have repainted his semi-circular surround for Ibsen’s “Brand,” this revival’s predecessor at the Haymarket, and left it at that.)
The tension comes from the fight for control of Mrs. Arbuthnot’s eager-faced son, Gerald (a likable Julian Ovenden), who doesn’t realize Lord Illingworth is, in fact, his father — the result of an encounter decades before between the sneering aristo and Mrs. Arbuthnot, who was cast aside as an 18-year-old naif. Since then, Lord Illingworth has gone on spouting apercus (of which “nothing succeeds like excess” is probably the most famous) while Mrs. Arbuthnot, pointedly clad in velvet black, has made her tainted way through life — “a woman who drags a chain,” she intones, “like a guilty thing.”
Such language indicates where “Woman” is headed, namely toward some of the fruitier, more flowery language (“Salome” excepted) of Wilde’s career. “You are more to me than innocence,” we hear one minute; “In her, all womanhood is martyred,” the next. In context, it’s a double tribute to Bond’s exceptional work that this fine actress (a Tony nominee for “Amy’s View”) dignifies such lip-quivering stuff, while much of the rest of the cast (Stirling, especially) topple like so many bowling pins around her.
Cast older than usual, a slightly graying Graves adopts an odd posture, leaning backward and puffing out his stomach as if the burden of cleverness were making him obese. Among the distaff chorus of quipsters, Joanne Pearce’s Mrs. Allonby is both the breathiest and the most strikingly dressed, her red gown in the second scene the most vibrant in a production that is as stylishly clothed (also by McKintosh) as it is drably set.
At the perf caught, an added play-within-a-play came from watching Prunella Scales, a top-rank comedienne, struggling with her lines. Playing Lady Hunstanton, the hostess in whose home three-fourths of the play takes place, Scales benefits from her character’s own forgetfulness, which is good for a laugh or two. But with the actress adding her own lapses to the equation, the audience was left to mark the elegant shoes and waistcoats — and the minutes until the curtain falls.