Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” will always remain in the shadow of the playwright’s comic masterpiece “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but second to greatness is still a very good thing.
The play features some of the playwright’s most quotable lines, among them the epic “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” (If, as an audience member, that doesn’t spark a grin, you’re in a dour mood, my friend.) It crams together a Wilde ride of moods and themes: crisp drawing-room comedy, melodramatic plot twists, hand-wringing at the corrosive effects of wealth, giggles at the excesses of the upper class and harrumphing at the hypocrisy of situational morality.
Such is the theatrical bounty offered in the Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre.
Crisply directed by Laurie Pessano and boasting gorgeous design in terms of costumes (by Ginger Kay Lewis Reed) and sets (by David Pierce), the production nevertheless does stumble a bit. But overall it remains a merry outing, and often a thoughtful one, too.
Alex Vaux, as Lord Goring, offers a thoroughly amusing and deft performance, helping bridge the gap between the silly and the thoughtful.
Three memorable performances anchor the show. Casey Ballard is a treat as the conniving Mrs. Cheveley, who as the play opens is popping up at a posh dinner party ready to do some mischief. Alex Vaux, as Lord Goring, the rich-and-oh-so-bored playboy whose surprising capacity for wisdom adds depth and humanity to the storyline, offers a thoroughly amusing and deft performance, helping bridge the gap between the silly and the thoughtful.
And Noel Adams, as the blustery Lord Caversham (and Goring’s disapproving father), is pitch-perfect in the role.
Just what mischief does Mrs. Cheveley have in store? She shows up at the beautiful London home of Sir Robert Chiltern (a sonorous and compelling Sterling Chase Stubblefield), a hot-shot junior politician. What Mrs. Cheveley proposes is good old-fashioned blackmail: If Sir Robert agrees to quash a critical report he’s about to deliver to Parliament on what is deliciously referred to as the “Argentine Canal Scheme” – doesn’t that just sound like something mysterious and British? – then she won’t release an incriminating letter of his that she has in her possession.
The seemingly beyond-reproach Sir Robert has a dark secret or two in his past.
“An Ideal Husband” today can feel drawn out in terms of pacing and disjointed in the way it doles out its comedy and drama. (Is it because we’re more used to our “comic dramas” swirling together the humor and the pathos?) This Good Company production feels stuffy and slow-moving in the first act even with Pessano’s brisk and thoughtful direction. The opening party scenes, however, do give us the opportunity to enjoy such small roles as the Countess of Basildon (a dapper and amusing Patricia Hoffman) and Margaret Marchmont (Karan Johnson, all decked out in one of Ginger Kay Lewis Reed’s sumptuous period costumes), who bask in their upper-class pretentiousness. (And Emily Kearns has a delightful turn as Sir Robert’s sister.)
Once the blackmail plot thickens, the narrative starts charging along, thankfully, with Ballard a smooth and witty femme fatale.
I have two reservations about the production. One is the talented Alyssa Gaynor’s take on the character of Lady Chiltern, whose fundamentalist concept of morality very nearly drags her husband down. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby once described Lady Chiltern as “loving and alarmingly stupid,” and while that is probably an overly brusque statement, I can understand the sentiment.
I’m not saying I think Gaynor should play Lady Chiltern as a dolt – but I’m concerned that she doesn’t find a significant way to play her at all other than as nice. As in nice and bland. In the initial scene in which Lady Chiltern bullies her husband into standing up to Mrs. Cheveley, it’s crucial for us to feel the stubborn hold she has on Sir Robert. Instead, the moment just sort of glides past. (As I say, Gaynor can be quite a force on stage, as evidenced by the last 2nd Space production of “The Glass Menagerie” she just wrapped up. She just doesn’t click for me with this role.)
My other reservation concerns the last act of the play as Wilde’s wacky plot machinations are wrapped up. (Spoiler alert here.) To me, one of the key elements of “An Ideal Husband” has to do with Sir Robert’s indignation at the alleged impropriety of his wife going to an unmarried gentleman’s house at night. Consider: Here Sir Robert stands, a massive moral blot on his record, and yet he gets uppity about this gendered transgression? It’s delicious hypocrisy at its best.
Yet in this production, this important plot thread feels perfunctory. I’m not sure if it’s because of cutting the play (the production is shorter than other versions) or just the way it’s directed, but something feels off.
Still, there is much to admire and enjoy in this well-prepared and engaging show. Not the least of which is the chance to see GCP veteran Mary Piona strut through the role of Lady Markby, the biggest aristocratic target in the play. Decked out in a glorious hat, she delivers her stuffy, platitudinous lines with relish, chomping down on them like a tiger devouring its prey. Thank you, Ms. Piona, for the laughs. You would have made an “Ideal” aristocrat.
An Ideal Husband
- Through June 12
- 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-9493
- $20, $17 students and seniors