Wharton's Fever is a rarified, glorious piece of spite
THE American author Edith Wharton was the kind of upper-class American who got (and gets) WASPs a bad name: snobbish, narrow-minded, racist, anti-semitic, and thoroughly bilious ... the word I used in 2008 to describe the late Hugh Leonard's adaptation for the stage of her short story Roman Fever. And, of course, the combination of qualities, whether played or read in drawlingly under-played words, makes for a superb piece of nasty high comedy.
The story is based on the old playground joke of, "She's my best friend and I hate her." Alida Slade and Grace Ansley, neighbours in New York's East 73rd Street, have been best friends since girlhood and their salad days in Rome when Alida was newly engaged to Delphin, and Grace was being pursued by Horace.
Now widowed, they are introducing young Jane Slade and young Barbara Ansley to the joys they themselves enjoyed a generation earlier. But Grace seems to have triumphed: it's her Barbara who has clicked, and is about to announce her engagement to a Marchese, much to Alida's chagrin on Jane's behalf. Trigger the long-simmering truth of the long-ago summer as Alida tries to regain sexual, if not social, supremacy.
The denouement is vicious and satisfying enough to appease a social diarist from the days when such scribblers needed to have a title even to be employed: it's a rarefied, glorious piece of spite set in a rarefied world of civilised ugliness. Michael James Ford re-directs for Bewley's Lunchtime cafe theatre in Dublin with Maria Tecce repeating the role of Alida, and Karen Ardiff replacing Helen Norton as Grace in a beautifully timed piece of under-playing, and Pierpaolo Vitale as the waiter.