Don't for a minute trust the genteel surface of "Lady Windermere's Fan." What Oscar Wilde had in mind while wielding his poison pen was a gilt-edged knife in the back of London aristocracy, a portrait of nobility adhering to an outmoded moral code that put women in satin straitjackets even more surely than it did on pedestals.
The brutal rigidity of a Victorian England obsessed with appearances is the play's metier -- that, and the relief that same society found in tawdry rumor and even tawdrier scandal. These two strains of Wilde's 1892 comedy, his first triumph in the theater, are for the most part wound together capably in Irene Lewis's sturdy production for Center Stage.
A pair of sharply drawn performances -- by Mary Catherine Wright, playing the bilious Duchess of Berwick, and Felicity Jones, as the fetching Mrs. Erlynne, London society's object of scorn and fascination -- raises the proceedings to a level somewhat above that of most American renderings of English comedy of manners. To a certain extent, their portrayals redeem some ill-conceived embellishments, the most unfortunate being Luis Perez's saccharine choreography during the transitions between the play's four major scenes.
Intended, no doubt, as palate-cleansers, these superfluous interludes do nothing so certainly as mar the illusion of the specific time and place that the other actors work so dutifully to sustain. Each time the dancer, Warren "Wawa" Snipe, comes onstage to move in gentle swirls and supervise the arrangement of the sofas, a twee artificiality fills the air. (Snipe making a direct appeal for the audience's approval further cheapens the conceit.) His inclusion is no more advantageous than that of Amy Klosterman, billed in the program as The Musician, who as the play begins is inexplicably perched at a tiny piano at the lip of the stage.
Perhaps they are meant to suggest the rarefied preoccupations of the gentry. Or maybe these little flourishes simply aren't executed with the proper panache. In any case, Wilde doesn't need this sort of help. Lewis, the longtime artistic director of Center Stage, is on much more solid ground when she is simply evoking the London of salacious whispers and exquisite gowns -- all of it set to the music of Wilde's fabulous epigrams, such as "I can resist anything but temptation" and "Crying is the refuge of plain women but the ruination of pretty ones."
"Lady Windermere's Fan" is consumed with the idea of personal ruin, with the notion that a society that counts stainlessness the highest virtue is deaf and blind to more authentic tests of character. The fancy crowd that orbits Lord Windermere (Michael Bakkensen) and his young wife, the foolishly insecure Lady Windermere (Mahira Kakkar) continuously trades bon mots about who qualifies as good and who as bad, with "bad" reserved for anyone who runs afoul of fickle arbiters such as the Duchess of Berwick. Wright's priceless, pinch-faced duchess cocks her head and spits out her lines like an agitated bichon frise. You know that the world is in dire straits when cold and petty opportunists like the duchess make it spin.
The heroic Mrs. Erlynne terrifies the duchess and her ilk, and they've cast her from their midst. A long-ago blot on her reputation -- she abandoned a child born out of wedlock -- sealed her exile, and now she is staking anew a claim on a position in society. Played by Jones with a hard-edged sensuality, Mrs. Erlynne is irresistible (even if the loud yellows and purples she's dressed in by Candice Donnelly put her at a bit of disadvantage). It is her allure that worries Lady Windermere: Why is her husband slipping Mrs. Erlynne loads of money? More to the point, how could Lord Windermere have led his spotless wife to the brink of public shame over his supposed dalliance?
Wilde's lavish realms often give license to a set designer's caviar dreams. For this production, Tony Straiges got in touch with his inner spendthrift; the sumptuous backdrop looks as if it were imported from an exotic club. Its central feature is a gigantic ornate fan, into which a doorway is cut (the title's double meaning is not made clear until deep into the play), and obscured by the fan is what appears to be a landscape by a French impressionist, or perhaps by Turner. It's warmly and grandly theatrical.
Kakkar is a suitably girlish Lady Windermere; among the men, Ethan Flower's Lord Darlington, the suave playboy determined to pry Lady Windermere from her husband's arms, exudes a fine, effete swagger, and Trent Dawson offers a nifty turn as a cynical swell. Bakkensen's Lord Windermere is commendably stern and patronizing.
The gears of "Lady Windermere's Fan" grind rather sluggishly; the play doesn't come close to the superlative banter of "The Importance of Being Earnest." This isn't Lewis's most memorable outing, either; the production is not in a league with her superb "Misalliance" last season. No biggie, though. It's possible to have mixed feelings about this venture and still be a, um, fan.
Lady Windermere's Fan, by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Irene Lewis. Sets, Tony Straiges; costumes, Candice Donnelly; lighting, Mimi Jordan Sherin; sound and music direction, Mark Bennett; dialect consultant, Ralph Zito. With David Cromwell, Yvonne Erickson, Natalie Griffith, Laurence O'Dwyer, Sean Pratt, Chelsey Rives. Approximately 2 hours 10 minutes. Through Oct. 24 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Call 410-332-0033 or visit www.centerstage.org.