BACK STAGE WEST
September 03, 1998
Though it contains some of his most enduring epigrams and a few of his essential characters, Oscar Wilde's 1895 play An Ideal Husband is a rather undercooked confection, a confused amalgam of farce, melodrama, and social satire that comes off at best as an amiable trifle, at worst as a pretentious, wearying fable. Nick DeGruccio's admirable new production is a bit more of the former than the latter--it sparkles more than it lags--though not enough to transcend the play's dramaturgical shortcomings or solve its central problem, which is Wilde's muddled, purblind characterization of the battle of the sexes.
Husband depicts the crisis of conscience that besets Sir Robert Chiltern (Chip Heller, fine but miscast), an upstanding, enlightened MP with a bright political future, when he's blackmailed by an amoral vixen, Mrs. Cheveley (the delicious Laura Wernette), over an unpleasant secret from his past. More to the point, the play examines the crisis of faith this revelation visits upon his impossibly virtuous wife, Lady Chiltern (a nicely quizzical Melissa Hanson). Her love for her husband is thus tested, as she goes from her initial blind worship of her "ideal husband" to a broader, more forgiving version of Christian charity.
Excuse me, but doesn't Wilde have this backwards? Was it really Victorian women who put their mates on pedestals and had trouble accepting them as flawed and multi-faceted human beings? Even if we yield this case to Wilde, he goes further out on this limb and cuts it off behind him, having his otherwise quite witty and contrary surrogate, Lord Goring (the delightful Todd Nielsen), argue quite soberly that it is a woman's duty to forgive her man, after all, because men have a larger moral purpose than women. Who needs suffrage, anyway?
There is room within the play's spacious scenes for actors to shine, and by and large they do: Nielsen and Wernette own the stage at each appearance--their scenes together positively snap--and both Stacey Scotte and Toni Sawyer etch memorable Wildean caricatures. John Holt has his extra-dry moments as an officious butler, Charles Howerton manages the required bluster and incomprehension as Goring's father, and Maura Knowles makes an impression as a chattering socialite. It's not a laugh-a-minute play, however, and DeGruccio would be advised to tighten the pace a bit; too often a typically paradoxical bon mot is followed by a pause for laughter, as the other actors onstage smile or chuckle forcedly in response.
John Patrick's sumptuous set evokes various locations well, with a lovely stained glass motif highlighted by D. Silvio Volonte's lighting. Shon LeBlanc's perfect costumes are a play unto themselves--arguably a more wisely observed one than Wilde's.
"An Ideal Husband," presented by and at the Colony Studio Theatre, 1944 Riverside Dr., Silverlake. Aug. 15-Nov. 8. (323) 665-3011.