An Ideal Husband – An Oscar Wilde Schemer

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A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE

Even for an avowed Oscar Wilde fan (and who isn’t?) such as myself, An Ideal Husband is kind of tough going.  Wilde was clearly working out some personal shit in this whole “secret secrets are no fun, secret secrets hurt someone” piece, not that I blame him.  It’s overlong, it lacks the silliness of  Earnest, it’s got some eye-rolling “Mars vs. Venus” prattle of the sexes moralizing at the end.  I think that there’s a notion among small theaters that because Wilde is funny, Wilde is easy and that just isn’t so.   The dialogue is intricate, the wit arcane, he can be off-puttingly snobbish and it sometimes fails to lift off for modern audiences even in the best of circumstances.  So, I’m not sure this difficult-to-make-work show should have been top of director Chava Sussman Goffin’s list for a company as small and truly community based as Jewish Theatre Workshop.  But doing it they are, bless them.  Husband kicks off in the home of Sir Robert (Dr. Reginald Carcon) and Lady Chiltern (Ariella McCown), uppercrusties having a dinner party.  At said party is the devious Mrs. Chevely (Rachel Simms) aka “Trouble on Two Legs”.  Lady Chiltern and Mrs. Chevely are old school chums but there isn’t any love lost between them.  We soon see why.  Almost immediately, Mrs. Chevely gets Sir Chiltern alone and gleefully lets it slip that she knows something he sure knows.  During some pillow talk with an ex-husband, she found out that Chiltern amassed his fortune on the back of slipping a well-timed Cabinet secret into the ear of a slimy speculator and she’s got a letter to prove it.   She wants Robert to support a sketchy pet scheme of hers, something about canals in Argentina (which is mostly an excuse for Wilde to make some barely veiled “canal is like vagina” quips).  Robert freaks out and promises he’ll support anything if she’ll just zip her lip about his criminal hush-hush.  Robert’s BFF, Lord Goring (Todd Shaffer), gets involved, instantly suspicious of Mrs. Chevely as he himself was once engaged to the she-devil.  And then there are letters on pink paper, drawing room confusions, a missing brooch that suddenly turns up again and all that Wilde stuff.   These are amateur performers (The word “amateur” gets tossed around a lot derisively and that’s a shame.  I was just chatting with someone the other day, I can’t think who, about how “amateur” comes from the French for “lover of”.  These actors are really, honestly, lovers of theater.  They don’t get paid, the cast outnumbered the house last night, and they didn’t get to go home until at least ten o’clock) on the rougher, more DIY end of the small theater spectrum. Admittedly, there were some cringey Guffman-esque moments.  I’m pretty sure that The Countess of Basildon was reading her lines off of pages affixed to the back of her fan, the wall stage right looked like it could topple over and kill someone any second, at one point the butler just barely made it off stage without totally losing control of a tray full of glassware, there was some pretty spectacular forgetting of lines.  But there were bright spots too.  Simms is mostly dead-on as the skeezy Mrs. Chevely.  She understands the script and the character.  I loved watching her smugly glide around, hips first, making horribly true observations about everyone.  I wish that Goffin would have made her turn out of profile once in awhile, but que sera.  Ariella McCown was nice and natural as poor Lady Chiltern.  She grounded a character that can easily turn too goody-two-shoed.  Reginald Garcon struggles with vocal variance as Robert, but he does do some nice flailing.  I was lukewarm on Todd Shaffer’s Lord Goring at first, but gradually he seemed to relax into the role, getting off some nice sardonic asides (he can also do a lounge on a Queen Anne sofa like nobody’s business).  I especially liked a climactic scene near then end when he and Mrs. Chevely are sexily going toe to toe.  Among the giant cast, there were some eye catchers, too.  Linda Maizels killed it as a jolly Mrs. Markby, a woman who has more to say than she has to think.  And Henry Farkas made me giggle as a long suffering servant named Phipps who could not give less of a shit about which candle shades make a woman look prettiest.  The less said about the tech probably the better.  It looked pretty hastily assembled and was a touch shabby.  The costumes (design by Chana Zeller and Rachel Zeller) were more Designing Women than Belle Epoch.  As for the set (design by Etan Weintraub), I’ve seen more washed out colors than that hideous lavender on the walls, but not many.  It looked especially bad under the glaring electric lights.

BOTTOM LINE:  There is something hurrahish about a company as teeny as JTW taking on one of the most sharply funny, deliciously difficult wits to ever live.  But An Ideal Husband is presented so staidly, so straight that it becomes an existential exercise in not getting the joke.  That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t anything there.  The play is rough, very rough in places, but then again, that’s where diamonds sometimes start, right?

Running at Jewish Theatre Workshop until August 24th.

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