The more things change ... Oscar Wilde's comedy "An Ideal Husband" may have been written in 1895, but it has a decidedly modern ring to it, involving as it does insider trading, sexual blackmail and politicians with pasts.
But unlike the second-rate scandals of today, the play's political maneuvering is all very discreet and proper, of course, and executed with wit, as was Wilde's way. It seems to be Washington Stage Guild's way, too. The young theater company, which has been successfully reinvigorating the classics, deserves a hand for reviving Wilde's play at such an apt time and for assembling such a charming production.
It begins with a soigne' soire'e in the home of Lady Chiltern and her husband Sir Robert, a well-respected politician, who are thought to have the ideal marriage. The expected expert but frivolous conversation bubbles up brightly as Wilde introduces his characters, "buttering" one another socially. But when the play appears destined to be all froth, the mysterious Mrs. Chevely arrives, an icily stylish woman who genteelly drops the play's bombshell. It seems she has invested heavily in a shady Argentine canal scheme, which Sir Robert is preparing to denounce in Parliament. But Mrs. Chevely has the goods on the golden boy: a letter that will tarnish his standing with the public and, more damagingly, in the eyes of his wife.
A game of blackmail hot potato follows, and the tidily constructed plot is peppered with arch observations about politicians and public expectations, and enjoyably complicated by romantic misunderstandings. Though the play concludes with what seems a conventional happy ending, it is actually quite modern: Wilde neatly sidesteps a moral (if there is one, it might be "Avoid dinner parties"), and all the characters, even the most rigidly moralistic, learn that excessive adherence to ideals is dangerous, if not impossible, and that compromise is a societal necessity.
Making his professional directorial debut, Bill Whitaker handsomely realizes Wilde's most "serious" play, showing a lively and assured hand. His orchestration of the opening party is effervescent, the crucial te~te-a`-te~tes have the proper tension, and the entertaining, efficient entr'actes have a hint of "Upstairs, Downstairs." Whitaker takes the brittle artifice of the script at a clip and the actors make their epigrammatic exchanges sound almost natural, though some might be a bit more careful with their diction.
Nick Olcott is a nice mix of starchiness, silliness and moral panic as Sir Robert, and Laura Giannarelli has a gracious gravity as Lady Chiltern. Helen Hedman's porcelain features suit Mrs. Chevely well, and the actress adds a touch of steel to her pleasant voice. Scott Morgan is a mite too solid and steady for the Chilterns' conceited confidant Lord Goring, who seems modeled after Wilde himself.
The evening's most delightful performance is given by June Hansen as the ludicrously loquacious Lady Markby. Upholstered in a cabbage rose print dress, she monopolizes the first act's tea-table talk in a tour de force of comic conversational vacuity. It's a disappointment that Wilde left her out of the second act. In fact, Hansen's characterization is so enjoyable, it would be nice to have a third act -- once Wilde has sewn up his story -- so we could indulge in more of Lady Markby's deliciously dizzy discourse.
An Ideal Husband,
by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Bill Whitaker; set, Marcus Darnley; lighting, Elaine Randolph; costumes, Lynn Steinmetz. With Laura Giannarelli, Francie Glick, June Hansen, Helen Hedman, Bill Largess, Scott Morgan, Nick Olcott, Laura Sebastian, Lynn Steinmetz, Alan Woodward. At Washington Stage Guild, Carroll Hall, 924 G St. NW, through Jan. 31.