The plot of An Ideal Husband isn't as absurd as that of Oscar Wilde's best-known play, The Importance of Being Earnest -- there's no mention, for instance, of a baby in a carpet bag -- but it's still a featherweight thing. Husband concerns a politician, Sir Robert Chiltern, whose spotless reputation is put at risk when a mysterious Mrs. Chevely returns to London from Vienna in need of a favor. Mrs. Chevely knows of a dark stain on Sir Robert's reputation -- the dishonest manner in which he acquired his wealth -- and in return for keeping silent, she wants his support in Parliament for a worthless scheme involving a canal in Argentina.
The plot also involves Sir Robert's loving and virtuous -- but also highly judgmental -- wife, Constance, who will certainly leave him if she learns of his dishonesty, and a friend, Lord Goring, who though he has made an art of idleness and spends most of his time contemplating the size and shape of his boutonniere, somehow manages to rescue Sir Robert and set everything to rights, all the while courting Sir Robert's wittily irrepressible little sister, Mabel. Making periodic appearances are Lord Goring's gouty father and a society lady named Mrs. Markby. The twists and turns of the action aren't particularly convincing, but the play is more than an extended joke. Wilde clearly empathized with his protagonist and wanted to convey something about the essential heartlessness of a too-rigid morality and the human need for empathy and forgiveness: "This life ... cannot be lived without some charity." And though Lord Goring presents himself as a preening fop -- and the source of one of Wilde's best-ever bons mots: "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifetime romance" -- he is clearly a decent and caring fellow at the core. In short, while An Ideal Husband is stylized and full of wit, it also allows us a glimpse into Wilde's sentimental Victorian heart.
It's here that the OpenStage production, directed by guest artist Devora Millman, is lacking. It's a lot of fun to watch, well acted and spoken with passable English accents, and it does do justice to the play's verbal agility. The sparring of Mabel and Lord Goring is particularly endearing. What's missing is the required current of feeling between Sir Robert and Constance. True, the writing here is more conventional, but the fault lies also in the direction and performances. Some essentially serious scenes are played for farce. Brian Hughes holds his own as Sir Robert, but he doesn't quite communicate the character's anguish, and J. Brooke McQueen plays Constance with warmth, but not much imagination or depth of feeling
As for the other actors, Brenna A. Freestone sashays gracefully across the stage as Mrs. Chevely, and it's fun to watch her minxy little smile. Properly pretentious but also appealing as Goring, Eric Corneliuson carries the play, and Lorraine Larocque jacks up the interest level every time she enters with her nicely eccentric and slightly bratty Mabel. The only thing I disliked about Carol Van Natta's otherwise satisfactory performance as Mrs. Markby was the cantering walk she affected. Ken Fenwick was convincing as Goring's father, and Zachary Brown had some nice moments as Goring's servant.
As it is, this is a charming soufflé of an evening. A touch of seriousness would have made it delicious.
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