by Everett Goldner · October 21, 2014
“’Strangely stiff. Flip where she should be melancholy. Merely flirtatious when she should be truly in love! In short, Mrs. Langtry, though long on charm in her person, comes up short for this true lover. Her ‘very very Rosalind’ is not a success.’
“Ah well, everyone still wants me at their party…”
Gilding the Lily is a personal take on the life and times of Emile Charlotte Le Breton, nee’ Lily Langtry, actress and socialite extraordinaire, who was trashed by a decade’s worth of critics for her turn as Rosalind in As You Like It, while winning popular acclaim. To Lily, comedy is COMEDY – pure and unalloyed, and the critics who rip her apart year after year must simply come to see that life is no different: if life is to have melancholic notes, they shall be melancholic with high spirits! Lily demands it. And though Lily demands a great deal of the world throughout this memory play, recollecting her affairs with the Boy who would be King, her secret confidences with Oscar Wilde (another soul forbidden by law to love who he wished), her worship of the divine Sarah Bernhardt, her flirtations and stolen kisses and letters from her many (many) admirers, she slowly and painfully deals with the fact that the world will not be commanded. The world will do as it will, and rarely as she would like, like it or not.
Suiting Lily’s mood, the locale of the play shifts from moment to moment (a set design suggests the Forest of Arden) like a funhouse maze, as Lily skips hither and yon through her career, her relationships and poetic reflections on the people who inhabited them. It’s unlikely that anyone will follow the logic of every twist, but Susannah Melone is an engaging enough presence as Lily – turning from delight to scorn to ennui, like a ballerina, demanding your attention in a moment and wisping away again inside her own revelries the next – that you’ll be pleased (if not merry) and intrigued (if not aglitter) enough to stay with her.
“I am certain I never wore an amber gown on a park bench with Mr. Oscar Wilde. He stole that dress from a painting by Edward Poynter. Hated that portrait – he got my coloring wrong. But it is a good painting. Very fine. And he gifted it to me.”
Lily is forever drawing fine distinctions, plucking beads from the necklace of her life and examining them like a suspicious antiques dealer. It’s far from certain what the intended effect of this is, but the impression I’m left with is recursive, as if Lily’s delight and tragedy is to become so fascinated by the doll-like appearance of her crafted persona that she cannot imagine that nesting inside the doll… is only another doll. That the apple is only wax, as an old-school acting exercise has it, is in some sense a source of great shame to her, and if you peer carefully around the edges of Melone’s performance you can see her dance with the secrets she can’t accept, just as she carefully enunciates the secrets that her Lily wants the audience to savor. There is, indeed, some characterization here as fine as that portrait Lily hated so much, so very fine that you may wonder what this story would look like as a novel instead of a play: Lily is a businesswoman, very aware that her product is herself – “I am what I have created myself to be” – and yet, she is so perfectly self-involved, enjoys her own product so much, that her authenticity is endlessly disappearing at the horizon like an M.C. Escher drawing. The effect (as you’ll realize within the first five minutes of the show) is deeply and inimitably Victorian: this person could not exist in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and Beyonce and Netflix and selfies.
“We would revel in the madness – in a dignified way, of course. A very warm and dignified way. Neither of us had ever quite conducted ourselves in that way before.”
The moments in which Lily seems to find some connection, some dignity must be held up against the merry-go-round of her Self’s creation, and if we find that measuring them takes some effort – well, so, we know, does Lily. This piece is currently being workshopped, and is likely to show up for an extended run in the summer or fall of 2015. Lily is probably never going to answer to any power beyond herself, but if she can allow that power to be a touch less arresting, a smidgen more inviting, a very compelling show may result.