Now in its 51st season, the Williamstown Theater Festival opens its new multimillion-dollar home and launches Roger Rees’ reign as artistic director with Oscar Wilde’s comedy-melodrama of Victorian English society. The handsome, double-balconied arts center comes off better than Moises Kaufman’s production, which minds its morals but not its manners.
Though the 1892 play was Wilde’s first hit, it is not as perfectly formed or frequently produced as the playwright’s masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” This summer, however, brings two high-profile productions, both starring accomplished thesps best known from TV’s “Designing Women.” Dixie Carter is center stage at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater. In Massachusetts’ Berkshires, it’s Jean Smart as Mrs. Erlynne, the woman with a questionable past and a dubious present.
Smart has a golden glow (reflected in Kaye Voyce’s lustrous costumes) as she delivers her sly lines with the expected aplomb. But she hasn’t quite found the depth of charm and command required to make the character as richly complex and experienced as Shaw’s Mrs. Warren or a post-door-slam Nora.
Smart nicely navigates the play’s societal waters, winning over both upper-crust men and women as required, but much of her character’s gains come a little too easily. It’s not until the second act, where she allows her heart to show through the careful veneer, that Smart is strongest.
One also expects a more masterful touch from a director who put onstage the documentary-style “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” But in this Wilde endeavor, where style is of the essence, Kaufman’s production is indelicately presented, with many perfs that are strident, common or coy, and design elements more bizarre than elegant.
Kaufman even misuses the WFT fleet of interns who traditionally populate productions and give shows a sense of old-school sweep. Here, the Windermere party is a lackluster, puny affair.
Production begins badly with a winking butler, an unsympathetic heroine and a series of exaggerated comic perfs that land the wittiest of lines with the subtlety of a gong.
Samantha Soule is an especially harsh Lady Windermere, the very proper young wife who comes to believe her husband of two years is having an affair with an older woman. Though Lady Windermere embraces the strict rules of London society, there is little in her nature that could beguile not only her husband (Corey Brill) but unrequited suitor Lord Darlington (Adam Rothenberg, playing an aristocratic bad boy too commonly). Soule, who looks older and more severe than one would expect for Lady W., forgoes any sympathy from the aud as she sets down the unwavering and unrelieved path of righteousness.
Other casting is mixed. Isabel Keating overenunciates and overplays the Duchess of Berwick, while Chandler Williams flails about as Mr. Dumby. But Benjamin Walker strikes all the right notes and gives the best readings of epigrams as Cecil Graham, while Elliotte Crowell gets the required applause as the duchess’ cowed daughter. Jack Willis gives the most well-rounded perf as Lord Augustus, a lovable fool for love.
The play still has the power to connect to contempo audiences in its criticism of an overly moralistic, hypocritical and male-dominated culture that embraces gossip, promotes extremism and fails to forgive. But it does so in spite of the production on the Williamstown stage.