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Oscar Wilde tiresome? Washington Stage Guild very nearly manages to make him seem so with its frequently inept production of An Ideal Husband. But this play is one of Wilde’s best, an ingenious comic commentary on politics, moral high-mindedness, and the hypocrisy that is inevitably a component of both, and it survives the mangling with only a hair or two out of place.
One needn’t look far to find contemporary relevance in the convoluted plot: Sir Robert Chiltern, an accomplished and popular politician and a public symbol of integrity, faces blackmail at the hands of Mrs. Cheveley, a highly clever woman of low moral character who knows that once, in a moment of weakness, Chiltern (Rick Foucheux) sold a state secret to secure his fortune and further his ambition. Now she wants his public endorsement for a questionable scheme she has invested heavily in; if he won’t play along, she’ll ruin his career.
Mrs. Cheveley (Cam Magee) is one of those villains you almost want to admire; she’s purely wicked, intelligent enough to see through self-deceiving self-righteousness, and all the more terrifying for her accurate analysis of the political climate: “In the old days nobody pretended to be a bit better than his neighbors….
Nowadays, with our modern mania for morality, everyone has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtuesand what is the result? You all go over like ninepinsone after the other.”
Besides his political prospects, Sir Robert has his wife to worry about. Lady Chiltern (Laura Giannarelli) believes the fiction Mrs. Cheveley describes, seeing her husband as the ideal mate of the title, nonpareil not only in spousal devotion but in moral rectitude and political principle as well. She loves him, she says when he asks, because he’s so surpassingly worthy of it; what she leaves unsaid (though Wilde lets Sir Robert hear it between the lines) is that he’ll lose her if he ever turns out to be anything less than perfect.
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Lord Goring (Bill Largess) is the other major factor in the equation. Once Mrs. Cheveley’s paramour, he’s Sir Robert’s closest friend and the very model of the indolent, witty Victorian society bachelor. He’s Wilde at heart, so naturally he gets all the best bons mots: “Youth isn’t an affectation,” he says when someone accuses him of affecting it. “Youth is an art.” And, to the woman he’s wooing: “That is the first unkind thing you’ve ever said to me. How charmingly you said it!”
Goring is easily as perceptive as his former love: “If you did make a clean breast of the whole affair,” he tells Sir Robert, “you would never be able to talk morality again. And in England a man who can’t talk morality twice a week to a large, popular immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician….The only professions left open to you would be botany and the Church.” (Foucheux actually looks frightened at the prospect; it’s only one of many acting choices director John MacDonald should have squashed.)
Inevitably, it’s Goring who rescues the Chilterns from their individual follies, outwitting Mrs. Cheveley, showing Lady Chiltern the way of forgiveness, and outlining Wilde’s own more compassionate morality: “This world cannot be understood without charity, cannot be lived in without charity. It is love…that is the true explanation of the world, whatever may be the explanation of the next.”
Giannarelli and Foucheux make a handsome couple as the Chilterns, handling their parts with passable suavity, though both go rather too far with their anger and grief in the confrontation scene. Stacie Stankus is a delight as Chiltern’s sister and ward Mabel, the object of Goring’s affection and a perfect match for him; their relationship is at least as much about elegant banter as about the biological imperative, and Stankus brings a gracefully light touch to their verbal sparring.
But MacDonald has miscast or misdirected several roles, one major and at least two minor: Largess can be dryly funny as Lord Goring, delivering Wilde’s best epigrams with droll panache, but after a while his performance becomes a series of facial mannerisms. And he’s probably too old for a part in which age is made much of. (The excruciating hairpiece Lynn Steinmetz has provided for the supposedly vain Goring doesn’t help.)
June Hansen is a bright spot as Lady Markby, but her husband Orval, a former politician himself, mumbles his way through the role of Goring’s father, Lord Caversham. He does, however, have the most theatrically useful eyebrows of any performer in recent memorygreat bushy, white caterpillar things that add measurably to the comedy quotient of any scene he’s in.
MacDonald’s most serious directorial error is in letting John Benoit go so far over the top in several small roles: Benoit plays the Chilterns’ butler, a vicomte, and Goring’s manservant, and every time he walks onstage he brings an overpowering odor of ham with him.
Of course, I saw the production in its final preview, so some of this is bound to improve as the cast gets more comfortable with the play’s delicate balance of lighthearted comedy and heartfelt drama. If it ever gets to the point where the performances are as polished as Carl F. Gudenius’ sumptuous settings and William Pucilowsky’s plush period costumes, it’ll be much nearer Wilde’s Ideal than what I witnessed. But I’m not holding my breath.CP