In an ideal production of An Ideal Husband, the men would be handsome, the women ravishing, the banter swift, and the rivalries deadly. And there is, to be sure, something deadly about Keith Baxter’s production for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Unfortunately, it’s most of the first act, which opens with the dullest party ever hosted and proceeds through blackmail, through panic, and on toward despair with all the dispatch of a slow loris repositioning himself mid-nap.
At stake in this, the most pointedly political of Oscar Wilde’s social satires, is the future of Sir Robert Chiltern, rising star of the foreign office and rich, handsome husband to one of London’s loveliest. His lady wife adores him, not least for his uprightness. Too bad Sir Robert started his career with a shortcut—and too bad the worldly, wicked Mrs. Cheveley has managed to get her hands on the letter that proves it. Will Sir Robert betray his ideals and back the canal scheme Mrs. Cheveley has invested in? If he refuses and his past is exposed, will Lady Chiltern stand by him? Will the bachelor dandy Lord Goring ever notice that he’s met his match in Sir Robert’s pert younger sister, Mabel?
Well, it’s a comedy, so by definition it all ends more or less well—which doesn’t stop Baxter from staging a final-curtain tableau that hints, as subtly as a campaign-season attack ad, at darker lessons about power and compromise. It’s a bit ripe, if forgivable; the Act 1 sluggishness is less so, if only because it leaves so many opportunities to count the number of accents being attempted, and to note how halfheartedly on some accounts. (Company veteran David Sabin seemed particularly undisciplined on press night, though at broad bullish comedy he’s as adept as ever.)
Baxter seems to have worked a whit harder with Gregory Wooddell, whose Sir Robert seems convincingly poleaxed when confronted with political ruin and public scandal. (That Rachel Pickup’s gracefully unbending Lady Chiltern may not forgive him seems as calamitous a prospect here, which is how it should be, though it isn’t always.)
If Emily Raymond’s angular Mrs. Cheveley reads as the broadest of villains in Act 1, she seems more interestingly complicated after intermission. Not so, alas, with Cameron Folmar’s Lord Goring, who remains merely perplexing, a sartorial and tonsorial conundrum going through a series of highly mannered motions at what’s meant to be the play’s heart.
There’s charm in the quite specific oddness of Claire Brownell’s Mabel Chiltern, who seems constantly startled by her own thoughts. And as spectacle, Simon Higlett’s massive black-marble mausoleum of a set is quite a thing, if a little on-the-nose about the wages of sin. (And the traps of success?) Robert Perdziola’s gowns are, as ever, an orgy of splendid, so we can at least be glad that Baxter keeps marching his exquisitely clad ladies so glacially up that steep, steep staircase: When a comedy of manners isn’t quite coming together, there’s always an audience for the drama of costume.