The Irish Classical Theatre Company has a knack for choosing summertime comedies with just the right amount of froth.
Its latest, whipped up like some perfect theatrical cappuccino by director Josephine Hogan and her talented cast, is Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windemere's Fan." It hits just the right Wildean balance between cutting snark and probing insight into human fear and frailty, easing us into a theatrical no-place where ancient jokes and ideas somehow seem fresh again.
As plots go, this one makes itself compelling by being patently unbelievable.
It involves the attempted return to London society of a mysterious woman with a reputation for bad behavior, played with extra relish on the side by Kate LoConti. Through a series of farcical occurrences, we come to learn her true connection to the other characters in the play, especially the earnest and naive Lady Windemere (Arianne Davidow) and her upstanding if naive husband (Matt Witten).
Naivete, in fact, might be the central theme of this charming exhibition of Wilde's smarts and sense of humor. His characters take great pleasure in deflating one another's stuffy worldviews, constantly launching razor-sharp observations and quips in the direction where they believe they are likely to do the most damage.
In this case, it is Mrs. Erlynne (LoConti), the disreputable woman whose is the subject of everyone's fascination, who does much of the deflating. Before her unsparing wit, which LoConti deploys with supreme confidence, the egos and morals of most of these men do not stand a chance.
Her most ardent suitor Lord Augustus (Christian Brandjes, in fine comic form) follows her around like a puppy, bowing to her every demand. Lord Windemere, the only one wise to her true secret, is the subject of her constant exploitation and derision. The rest of London society, that swamp of swirling hypocrisy Wilde so loved and scorned, comes in constantly for Mrs. Erlynne's withering critiques.
LoConti, as expected, is marvelous in the role. She fully owns her character's sense of entitlement, but that drops away entirely when she talks with Lady Windemere, with whom she seems to share some sort of unspeakable bond. LoConti's scenes with the equally gifted Davidow serve as the genuine emotional ground from which all the play's snarky comments and sendups grow.
The same cannot quite be said for Davidow's scenes with the talented Ben Michael Moran as Lord Darlington, her puppy-eyed potential paramour, which seem to lack chemistry.
To that end, no one in the cast is better at delivering comic takedowns than Chris Kelley's Cecil Graham, a figure of no apparent importance aside from his ability to crack jokes. Kelley plays him with savage delight, a self-satisfied manner and an extraordinary accent that has probably never existed in the wild.
Not far behind him in the snark department is Colleen Gaughan as the Duchess of Berwick, into which Wilde has packed his worst opinions about the hypocritical London aristocracy.
"Many a woman has a past," she remarks about Mrs. Erlynne, "but I am told that she has at least a dozen, and that they all fit."
That's a sweet, Victorian burn. Careful not to cut yourself on the reparteé.
Even the butler (David Lundy) gets in on it, treating certain guests with a raised eyebrow and withering disdain before engaging in a creaky half-pirouette and lumbering his way out of the theater.
All of this unfolds, as if effortlessly, on Paul Bostaph's marvelous set of a stark white tile floor and set pieces that adapt into different kinds of period furniture. As usual, Brian Cavanagh's finely tuned lighting adds a glimmering sheen to the whole affair without overdoing it, or drawing any attention to itself.
A. Lise Harty's costumes, from elegant ball gowns to stuffy tuxedos, assist in the suspension of our disbelief. The play may not be one of Wilde's standouts, but the production is one of the Irish Classical's very best.
3.5 stars (out of four)
"Lady Windemere's Fan" runs through June 24 in the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St. Tickets are $20 to $45. Call 853-4282 or visit irishclassical.com.