Combine the wit of Oscar Wilde with a sparkling cast and the taut, measured direction of theatrical veteran Laura Gordon, and one would expect a superlative production.
Yet American Players Theatre’s take of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, which opened to a capacity crowd at the Up-the-Hill Theatre on a steamy and ultimately stormy Saturday night, proved less than ideal — thanks less to the current company than to the cross-purposes of the author himself.
Written in 1895, just prior to Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband focuses on the trials and tribulations of would-be parliamentarian Sir Robert Chiltern (David Daniel), his adoring and unrealistic wife Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Colleen Madden), and the conniving Mrs. Cheveley (Tracy Michelle Arnold), who would have Sir Robert support her unpopular scheme or pay the price of her blackmailing ways.
This is the sort of stuff with which Wilde typically had a great deal of fun plucking at the failings of humankind. But the action toward the end of Act I treads a tad heavily into melodrama, losing its lightness and briefly derailing its comic trajectory.
When the cast returns for Act II, those more familiar Wildean sentiments are restored to the point where the initial conflict is almost forgotten. The resolution notwithstanding, one almost wonders what all the fuss was about. The play is emotionally uneven and confusing when Wilde is not at his best.
The author’s voice and clarity of purpose comes through most strongly in the character of Lord Arthur Goring (Marcus Truschinski), a vain, vapid unemployed man-about-town with all-too-keen insight into the foibles of his fellow fashionable Londoners. Goring is the eternal frustration of his father, the blustering Lord Cavendish (Jonathan Smoots), who would have his son married — if he thought the young man had it in him.
“I don’t know how you stand society,” Cavendish says at one point. “A lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.”
“I love talking about nothing, Father,” Goring replies. “It’s the only thing I know anything about.”
Goring serves as the author’s internal narrator, helping his characters analyze their own shortcomings and loosening the social mores in which they are so tightly bound. His bon mots provide the audience with cleverly phrased analyses that foreshadow many of the play’s resolutions — much-needed, and often a delight to the audience.
APT’s production is made handsome largely by the accomplishments of Mathew J. LeFebvre’s luxurious costumes. (The lady’s hats alone may be worth the price of admission.) Additionally, Takeshi Kata’s sparse but evocative set and Jessica Lanius’ restrained but impressive choreography do much to embellish the decorative purposes of both the era and the stage action.
The cast itself is strong, especially the principals. Smaller roles, including John Pribyl’s butler Phipps and Cristina Panfilio’s delightfully droll Lady Basildon, also are played to perfection, adding a few more delicious flavors to Wilde’s bubbling human stew.
An Ideal Husband once or twice dances dangerously close to becoming a common potboiler, but the author’s wit and APT’s impressive cast always seems to save the play from drowning in its own gravitas. And for a character like Lord Goring, such a misstep would never do.
Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband closes September 24.