Though not quite in the same league as the sublime "The Importance of Being Earnest," "An Ideal Husband" offers abundant evidence of Oscar Wilde's famous wit and mordant social satire. The script--the tale of a pious politician blackmailed for a long-hidden misdeed--flows over with acerbic humor and pointed observations on the hypocrisies of Victorian England. What it doesn't have, however, is a place for actors to hide.
The latest offering from the Greenbelt Arts Center, "An Ideal Husband" underscores the pitfalls of amateur actors tackling demanding texts. Wilde is not a subtle writer; he thrusts his brilliance in your face. As a result, it is painfully obvious when a line is less than expertly delivered.
The play's themes are remarkably timely in the post-Monica era. The action revolves around Sir Robert Chiltern (Stuart Fischer), a smug, up-and-coming politician whose Boy Scout image is key to his success. That success is jeopardized by the arrival of scheming Lady Cheverly (Lori Murray Sampson), armed with evidence of the illegal origins of Chiltern's fortune. Sampson, a standout, is alternately coquettish and ferocious as she plots to gain Chiltern's support for a fishy canal-building venture.
Chiltern is perfectly willing to go along with Cheverly's plan but is foiled by his over-adoring wife (a nicely nuanced Kim Weaver). Earnest and moralizing, Lady Chiltern loves being married to the titular "ideal husband" possibly more than she loves the man himself. She's already heard Chiltern say the canal project is bogus and refuses to let him change positions. Lady Chiltern's rigidity makes her a potentially unsympathetic character, but Weaver radiates a warmth that keeps her from seeming like a shrew.
Panicked by the possible loss of his social standing and/or wife, Chiltern turns to his best friend, the no-account viscount Lord Goring (Max Pugh) for advice. Goring is the Wilde surrogate in the play, a resolutely dissolute bachelor. Yet for all his apparent faults, Goring is the heroic figure here and, indeed, is the most romantic character in the play. He is the one who convinces his friends to value love and forgiveness over moral judgment and disappointment. He is also the one who finds a way to declaw the feline Lady Cheverly.
Although possessed of a first-rate double take, Pugh struggles mightily with Wilde's language and his own wayward British accent. Goring is supposed to drive the action in the play's second half, but Pugh's tentativeness allows it to flag. Fischer also must shoulder some of the blame: He's glib enough but seems incapable of sustaining eye contact with his fellow actors and, as a result, delivers his lines into space, where they get lost.
Oh, the lines! Wilde's script is chock-full of witticisms, absurdities and wry asides, but the cast for the most part fails to take full advantage of them. That said, the supporting cast does have its moments. Shannon Farias could use a little more spark, but she does a fine turn as Chiltern's enthusiastically vapid sister, Mabel. Angela Pugh and Kelly Newman make an amusing pair of bored socialites, while Sheilah Crossley-Cox's loopy intensity as Lady Markby gets laughs even when the lines escape her. Among the men, Don Juran blusters amusingly as Goring's father, and James O'Sullivan is a sly pleasure as Goring's manservant.
"An Ideal Husband" will be performed Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Feb. 12 at the Greenbelt Arts Center, 123 Centerway Rd., Greenbelt. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students. For reservations, call 301-441-8770.
CAPTION: Lord Goring (Max Pugh) listens to an offer he just can't refuse from Lady Cheverly (Lori Murray Sampson).