An Ideal Husband

Comedy
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Editorial Review

Buffed-up 'Husband' still not 'Ideal'
Shakespeare Theatre's stylistic treatment can't overcome Wilde's wan play

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 16, 2011

The image of a coin of the realm is pressed into the architecture of director Keith Baxter's sumptuous "An Ideal Husband" as if it were meant to cast a radiant halo over the impeccably manicured surroundings. "Life, Joy and Empire" reads an inscription on a circular cutout that hangs over a grand staircase — suggesting, somehow, that these words were the exclusive property of the moneyed class that Oscar Wilde sets to tsk-tsking over in his surprisingly lacking 1895 comedy.

"The God of this century is wealth," declares Sir Robert Chiltern (Gregory Wooddell), and the declaration seems to find confirmation in the heavenly sets by Simon Higlett and frocks by Robert Perdziola. The lords and earls and countesses sip tea and exchange pleasantries in Higlett's gorgeous treatment in Sidney Harman Hall of a marbled parlor in Chiltern's London manse — an environment that ends up communicating more about the creative team's superb taste than anything potently provocative about the characters, or the century.

For though "An Ideal Husband" gives Baxter and the Shakespeare Theatre Company ample opportunity to express their inner Dolce & Gabbana, the play itself belongs on the shelf of minor Wilde efforts. Now, in comparison to his work of unassailable comic genius, "The Importance of Being Earnest," any play might look inferior. But "An Ideal Husband" commits its hand-wringing too transparently to come across as anything more than a noteworthy relic. It's interesting to point out that that nonpareil moral arbiter, George Bernard Shaw, initially thought "Ideal Husband" superior to "Earnest" — and then, later on, changed his mind.

The shortcomings of the play do not, however, render it unlikeable, especially a production of this high a caliber. As a director, Baxter is a kind of stylistic hedonist; there's intimation of pleasure in everything from the sound of luxuriously plunked musical chords to the floral arrangements fit for royal nuptials. His eye is a match, too, for Wilde's tongue. "A man who allows himself to be convinced by an argument is a very unreasonable person," says Lord Goring, the bon vivant played to divine effect by Cameron Folmar.

Okay, so that line isn't top-drawer Wilde, either. That's sort of the ongoing problem in "An Ideal Husband." Still, Folmar and several others — most notably, Rachel Pickup, as Chiltern's ferociously loyal wife, and Emily Raymond, as a shady lady who threatens to destroy Chiltern's life — cook up portrayals as savory as the evening allows.

"An Ideal Husband" charts the dilemma facing Chiltern, a widely admired, up-and-coming politician who's blackmailed by Raymond's Mrs. Cheveley. His scheming adversary (wearing a scandalously vibrant shade of magenta) threatens to go public with a letter detailing a not-so-innocent indiscretion of his youth: As a low level aide, he made a fortune buying stock in a massive project knowing the government was about to invest hugely in it.

Mrs. Cheveley wants the same opportunity, demanding Chiltern either withdraw his opposition in Parliament to an Argentine canal-building plan that will enrich her, or she will ruin his reputation. His agony is compounded by the secret he's kept of the misdeed from Lady Chiltern, who thinks him a paragon of rectitude.

It's all veddy soapy, and epistolary: After intermission, another letter, from Lady Chiltern to Lord Goring, falls into Mrs. Cheveley's hands, and now it's Lady Chiltern's turn to deal with the embarrassing repercussions. In contrast to "Earnest," however, the complications are treated not as grist for delightful farce, but for some nighttime instruction in the right thing to do.

Wooddell is a solid, square-jawed Sir Robert and Claire Brownell gives an entertaining jolt to the role of his sister, Mabel, who's devoted to the seemingly uninterested Lord Goring. Mabel drops many a romantic hint and, like the play itself, the effort is not subtle.

By Oscar Wilde. Directed by Keith Baxter. Sets, Simon Higlett; costumes, Robert Perdziola; lighting, Peter West; sound, Martin Desjardins; dialect coach, Ellen O'Brien; wigs, Anne Nesmith. With David Sabin, Nancy Robinette, Lise Bruneau, Anne Stone, Kevin Bergen, Warren Katz. About 2 hours 45 minutes.