Absolutely Scandalous Productions

Any company calling itself “absolutely scandalous” has set itself a pretty lofty goal, as has any playwright who invokes the names of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Unfortunately, The Wilde Coward is more scurrilous than scandalous and absolute only in its excess.

Wilde and Coward were very much part of the society they lampooned and would have wanted it no other way–the plays of both invariably end with the status quo unchanged. They were able to target the absurdities of upper-class behavior because they knew the conventions. If Fritz Dickmann, a young midwestern playwright, intended to satirize the elite of either Wilde’s or Coward’s day, he should have done a lot more research. In The Wilde Coward the Buggeringwells are throwing a sumptuous garden party, but it’s set in 1952, when most of England was still on rations. And it may have seemed funny to have Lady B. wear a diamond tiara with her tennis whites, but tennis whites are most inappropriate for a garden party, a rather formal affair that is not synonymous with a backyard barbecue.

The word “scandal” connotes a flouting of conventions–conventions Wilde and Coward were very careful to set up, the better to knock them down by exposing the ridiculousness beneath the veneer. Dickmann has dispensed with the veneer altogether. A leer or an ogle is only funny when executed by someone from whom we would not expect it, which is why the bit about dogs suffering from postwar trauma is funny. But proclaiming the characters’ bawdiness from the beginning by giving them names such as Buggeringwell and Pelvishampton takes all the double out of the entendre.

All this school-yard sniggering might be acceptable in a ten-minute improv sketch–indeed, The Wilde Coward began as one of a series of parodies developed in the Comedy Workshop in Houston. But not when stretched over two hours. So there are old saws such as “Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder” and “I’m investigating the effects of food on world hunger.” A preponderance of wordplay for its own sake–“Good breeding is “in’ and inbreeding is good,” a nice line but a non sequitur, since nothing has been said previously to introduce the topic of inbreeding. Musical parodies that owe more to Gilbert and Sullivan than to Coward, except for one takeoff on the Chordettes’ “Mister Sandman,” which was not recorded until 1954.

The Wilde Coward’s plot is based on a double-identity premise. Lord Buggeringwell can only make love to his wife when he is masquerading as Cheese, the butler; Lady Buggeringwell has been unaware of his deception for their 12 years of marriage. Uh-huh. The two gentlemen are played by Logan Bazar and the lady by Jennifer Noble with concentrated vivacity. The other six roles are played by Fritz Dickmann, whose Scottish grounds keeper sounds exactly like his Indian academician, and Molly Stark, who not only plays a mean cello and recites poetry with the skill of a Green Mill champion, but also manages to make her three caricatures into distinguishable personalities–though her Philadelphia socialite has a midwestern accent. But then Noble’s Mayfair dialect has traces of Stark’s French-maid accent.

But why quibble? The Wilde Coward is humor by lowbrows for lowbrows. Those who are amused by “She was taking a French lesson from the gardener. . . . I’m glad she’s taking on a new tongue” or an effort to say “Vivat Regina” fast three times will have a nice giggly evening. Those whose wit runs toward Wilde, Coward, or even Neil Simon would do well to pass on this preadolescent prurience.