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Innocence and experience: (l-r) Soule and Smart in WTF’s Fan.

Fitful Wit
By Ralph Hammann

Lady Windermere’s Fan

By Oscar Wilde, directed by Moises Kaufman

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through July 17

For his maiden production as artistic director of the Wil liamstown Theatre Festival, Roger Rees has inaugurated the festival’s much-anticipated move into its new home (the bleakly institutional ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance) with Oscar Wilde’s first London theatrical success. It is something of a treat to see this rarely produced social comedy, but while it’s a respectable production, Lady Windermere’s Fan unfolds with scant fanfare.

The play represents Wilde finding his singular dramatic voice, but is also a bit too mired in some trying aspects of Victorian melodrama. Wilde’s brilliant epigrams and ripostes are set against more serious scenes that critique unfair conventions that create social and moral inequities.

Thus, we have Lady Windermere, a young lady of unimpeachable propriety, about to fall from grace when she suspects her husband is having an inappropriate relationship with an older woman, Lady Erlynne, of suspect morality. Complicating Lady Windermere’s moral compass is Lord Darlington, a wit who professes his love for her. Lord Windermere’s secretiveness coupled with Lord Darlington’s seductiveness place the titular fan-bearer between a gust and a hard wind. She may suffer a fatal blow to her honor by staying with the one, or she may reap humiliation by getting retribution for the assumed wrong and blowing out of town with the other.

Lady Windermere is an exceptionally difficult role, given that she is blessed with none of Wilde’s best lines and most of the stage time. The triumph in Samantha Soule’s performance here lies in her ability to enjoin our empathy while also making some awkward soliloquies seem entirely natural.

Playing the role of the worldly woman with a past, Jean Smart proves an apt choice. Even if she doesn’t convince that Lady Erlynne could pass for 30, she cuts a graceful figure and couples Wilde’s wit with palpable ruefulness as she subtly becomes the play’s moral center.

The greatest share of Wilde’s humor on the distaff side belongs to the Duchess of Berwick, who sprinkles her gossip liberally with bon mots that become bonbons in Isabel Keating’s mouth. Keating energizes the stage with her every entrance, even if a few of her pointed observations and rejoinders could use underlining that is a little less heavy than her eyeliner.

It is in Benjamin Walker’s Cecil Walker that Wilde’s voice is most perfectly heard. An enormously skilled performer, he parries and thrusts the epigrams with the requisite carelessness and affability.

Unfortunately, it’s as if Stanley Kowalski were playing the part of Lord Darlington. Where Darlington should be effete, Adam Rothenberg veers toward brutish; where his quips should be precise and appear indifferent, Rothenberg is slack-jawed and deliberately emotional; where Darlington is a sharp-tongued dandy, Rothenberg is a sputtering dangler; and where Darlington’s model is Wilde, Rothenberg’s comes from the wild.

The other serious liability is Lord Windermere. It requires something more than a nonentity to make it work. But Corey Brill barely registers as a stage presence unless it might be the fourth wall. Uninteresting, unappealing and uninvolved, he gives Soule little to play off as regards even a doit of chemistry.

As the play’s dolt, Lord Augustus, Jack Willis becomes ever more likeable and converts a potential caricature into a character of dimension who comically contrasts to the atmosphere of rarefied intellect and elegance.

And the real discovery is Elliotte Crowell’s Lady Augustus, who lives in the perpetual shadow of the domineering Duchess of Berwick. With nothing more than two repeated words of dialogue, helplessly downcast eyes and an adorably downturned mouth. she looks embarrassed to be alive. Without any intention or effort to do so, she almost upstages the others by virtue of her total commitment to her character.

Shared Adventure

High Dive

By Leslie Ayvazian

Adirondack Theatre Festival, through July 16

“I’ve always wanted to do a one-woman show with a large cast,” says playwright-actress Leslie Ayvazian, who has created just that in an entertaining autobiographical monologue about life and how it leads up to a swimming pool in Greece, with her 11-year-old and all the other hotel guests encouraging her to jump. Throughout the hourlong piece, members of the audience, recruited in the lobby a half-hour before curtain, take on the roles of Ayvazian’s husband, her mother-in-law, Mickey Rooney, and Bitchin’ and Frog, two cable installers (well, only Frog really; Bitchin’ never speaks). With their help, Ayvazian explains how she ended up stranded on the high dive, why friends call to find out where she’s going for vacation before booking their own plans, and how an adulthood that started out “at sixes and sevens” turned out to be pretty nice.

Ayvazian is a great storyteller, one of those people who can fill the littlest incident with suspense, drama and humor. Whenever she goes on vacation, disaster strikes: There’s record heat in Greece, record cold in Florida (so cold, the fish froze), a hurricane in Hawaii and an earthquake in Mexico. Married to a trust-fund baby with an adventuresome WASP gene, Ayvazian—whose own ancestors left Armenia only because they had to, and whose only childhood vacation, to Woods Hole, was considered a bust because it was “windy”—finds herself camping across the United States and crossing a rope bridge in the French Alps under the illusion that “I might be, without my knowing it, someone who liked to do that sort of thing.” Her first “real” job, working backstage at a dinner theater in Ohio, provides her earliest brush with stardom, including a hilarious incident involving Dorothy Lamour (and, of course, the thing with Mickey Rooney). Then there was the time, during an 18-month lull between acting gigs in New York, when she became obsessed with winning the $25,000 Pyramid . . .

Ayvazian’s conceit, that she can draw the audience in by making them part of the show, works wonderfully. Like the author, the impromptu supporting players find themselves taking risks and coming out fine. The only direction Ayvazian gives them is to speak loud, and amazingly, that alone is almost enough. She has said that she’s often surprised at the new and different readings audience members give to their lines, and opening night’s audience seemed like they’d rehearsed for weeks. (Could they have been ringers? Nah, Adirondack Theatre Festival wouldn’t do that.) It’d be interesting to see the show again to hear how another group handles it. Having voices call out from various parts of the relatively large Charles R. Wood Theater also added an almost textural quality to a piece that otherwise relies entirely on the images conjured up by Ayvazian’s words and gestures. All in all, High Dive, though short, is theater of the highest level, an enjoyable evening spent in the company of a talented actress who can take a roomful of strangers and make them feel they’ve faced disaster and come out all right.

—Kathy Ceceri


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