The “Real Housewives” of Bravo have nothing on the women of Oscar Wilde’s merciless comedy “A Woman of No Importance,” who are now prowling and bumbling across the Andrews Theatre stage in a masterful Irish Classical Theatre Company production.
Bravo’s “Housewives” franchise, as countless dutiful husbands and boyfriends have been forced to observe, offers a vapid and soulless sendup of vapid and soulless one-percenters with occasional doses of lukewarm comedy. Wilde, by contrast, delivers a withering and breathless deconstruction of aristocratic indifference and hypocrisy that makes the most vicious “Housewives” dispute look like a kindergarten slap-fight. Wilde’s women throw more shade in a single sentence than the Atlanta housewives do in an entire season.
Of course, the well of literature about upper-class absurdity is practically inexhaustible, but there is something particularly satisfying about “A Woman of No Importance.” Wilde gets straight to the heart of the dramatic impulse among the aristocrats of late-Victorian London, which seems to arise as much from boredom as from cluelessness or cruelty. Left to their own devices, as Wilde constantly implied across his brief and wondrous career, monied men and women will amuse themselves by trying to destroy one another. And we will happily watch.
The plot, as much as there is one, is a cheap framing device for a collection of irresistible – and irresistibly awful – characters. The first two we meet are the perpetually condescending Lady Caroline (Kathleen Betsko Yale), who as the play opens is looking down her nose at the young American Hester Worsley (Eliza Vann), Wilde’s wobbly stand-in for New World purity. Shortly we meet Lady Hunstanton (Kelli Bocock-Natale), a blathering and impossibly optimistic aristocrat with no moral compass who serves as the play’s comic center.
Soon enough it comes to light that the unredeemable master of the house, Lord Illingworth (Vincent O’Neill, clearly reveling in the role), has hired a young lower-class man named Gerald (Alan Trinca) to be his secretary. As Gerald has no idea that the philandering Lord Illingworth is his father, this opens all sorts of dramatic potential, which Wilde shortly fills with perfectly calibrated bon mots and gloriously melodramatic speeches.
Much criticism of the play has revolved around its relatively motionless first act, in which all that happens is a great deal of talking. Hogan and her cast solve this problem very wisely, by accentuating the absurdity of Wilde’s characters to a point that stops just millimeters short of caricature. To watch Bocock-Natale sputter half-remembered bits of wisdom as the good-spirited but clueless Lady Hunstanton and Yale deliver loaded words and glances as the curmudgeonly Lady Caroline is to see two comic masters at the top of their talent.
Hogan’s decision to allow her actors to veer toward the cartoonish was a bold risk, but it is just restrained enough to give that supposedly troublesome first act the momentum of a David Mamet play. And that comic drive never stops, even as the play turns serious with certain revelations regarding Gerald and a heavy dose of dour dialogue from the dowdy Mrs. Arbuthnot (the fine Eileen Dugan).
Wilde gives many of the best lines to Mrs. Allonby, an upper-cruster and sort of Victorian version of reality TV star NeNe Leakes, who has the play’s best speech on the qualities that make an ideal husband. Which is to say: servitude and theatrical groveling.
The impulses that drove Wilde to write the play are the same ones that drive viewers tune in to the “Real Housewives” franchise. As fans of either, we tell ourselves that we’re merely attracted to the absurdities of the impossibly rich, when in fact a major part of what makes us flip to Bravo or shell out $39 for a Wilde play is genuine, unalloyed envy.
That is the dark and uncomfortable truth at the heart of all such literature, and it’s worth pondering. Wilde, with expert help from Hogan and her phenomenal cast, has given us a perfect opportunity to do so.