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Noel Coward's
After the Ball

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

It's happened to all regular theatregoers at one time or another: Sitting through a particularly poor show, you find yourself wondering, "Why didn't the creators realize that what they were doing wasn't working?" But how often do the creators publicly confess that their chosen course was the wrong one, but ask that you stick with them anyway?

You have a rare opportunity to witness this at the Irish Rep, where After the Ball just creaked open. NoŽl Coward's musicalization of Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan has been edited and adapted by Barry Day, who alone is responsible for the most entertainment the show is able to generate: his program notes.

After detailing the casting problems that derailed the original 1954 London production, Day explains that he's attempted to combine Coward's original "book" (his quotation marks, not mine) with added scenes from Wilde's play, and enlisted John McGlinn to recreate and restore cut songs. But, after conceding that the large-scale original production would be irreproducible today, he admits that "in this slimmed-down version - in which some characters have had to be elided, and others dropped - it's sometimes unclear who is who and where."

One can only wonder why "character" and "location" were last-minute concerns for Day at any point during this revisal's creative development, or why anyone so willing to ignore them would bother tinkering with Coward in the first place. Regardless, Day and this production's director, Tony Walton, not only eviscerate the work of Coward and Wilde, but do it in a way so pedantic that it calls into question their desire to rewrite the show at all.

The resulting production recalls the recent Irish Rep Finian's Rainbow in concept only. In that production, the script alterations (including the addition of a narrator), piano accompaniment, and highly intimate nature amplified the good-hearted fairy-tale folksiness already present in the original piece. Day and Walton's slash-and-burn dramaturgy sees Coward moments that should sparkle like fine champagne go down about as smoothly as flat seltzer.

If Walton and Day have made the characters easier to identify, it's impossible to identify with them. Everyone in the play is apparently a performer in a music hall-interpretation of Wilde's story: They wear crisply detailed costumes and stand before a background of red curtains or an impressionist rendering of Hyde Park (Walton also designed the sets and costumes), and are even farther removed from us emotionally than they are physically. It's difficult to care much about the story of Lord and Lady Windermere (Paul Carlin and Kristin Huxhold), each of whom has good reason to believe the other is unfaithful, and who play out their insecurities before, during, and after a glamorous ball.

The casting is mostly as personality-free as the adaptation: Huxhold possesses a lovely, light soprano, but little else; Carlin is downright bland; and, with the exception of Greg Mills, who plays Australian gadabout Hopper with a wildly wavering accent, the other men are interchangeable in voice, appearance, and stage presence. Collette Simmons registers some spunk in the small role of Lady Agatha, but only Mary Illes makes a solid impression, as the woman with a secret stake in Lady Windermere's future (and past). She's got a strong voice (if underpowered for her role), and brings some sense of mystery to her character.

Illes, at least, has something to play. Kathleen Widdoes is seldom that lucky as the Duchess of Berwick and a newly invented narrator figure. In that capacity, she speaks almost entirely in rhymed couplets, a device Day insists Coward himself used when recording his 1934 operetta Conversation Piece. A recording and a stage show are, however, different things, and what works in one won't necessarily work in the other; indeed, Day's ridiculous rhyming prevents the show from ever evoking two qualities crucial to both Coward and Wilde: style and sophistication.

Widdoes, though, comes close in her second-act solo "Something on a Tray," spitting out the words in a way that suggests there's some genuine Coward bite buried deep beneath the dross. The other songs are agreeable, tuneful and often witty, but feel as perfunctory as most of the performances. But with a vitiated libretto, poorly integrated songs ripped from the Coward catalog, and a libretto that to this day no one cares about - Act II, Scene 2 is set in a mysterious place called "An Interpolation" - who could do better with this?

That obviously wasn't the concern; Coward can't complain, after all, though he - and everyone else involved - deserves better. But this show being done at all is enough for some, even Walton, who in his director's notes explains his personal history with and affection for the show. Why then would he and Day take such great pains to revise it into one of the worst musical productions of the year? That question is far more compelling than anything else in this After the Ball.

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Irish Repertory Theatre
Noel Coward's After the Ball
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.727.2737