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A CurtainUp Review
An Ideal Husband
By Eric Beckson
Director Robert Francis Perillo and company take fair aim at Oscar Wilde's 1890's social comedy, resulting in a pleasantly entertaining near miss. Credit goes to dialect coach Robert Blumenfeld for helping the American cast adapt to the deceptively simple, stylized dialogue that is quintessentially Wilde. Rushed and lacking poise early on, the principals find their footing after intermission, adroitly executing the unraveling of plot in act four.
The story of blackmail, political corruption and public and private honor relies on the creaking machinery of the piece bien faite (well-made play) popularized in mid-19th-century France. With the intention of keeping the audience in a state of suspense, a series of ironic twists and turns leads to inevitable confrontations, revelations, and ultimately a reversal of circumstances. The familiar conventions adopted include secrets in the lives of characters, love intrigues and consequent misunderstandings, and the use of theatrical props (letters, a brooch, and a fan).
An Ideal Husband played to packed houses in London's West End at the same time that Wilde was placed on the witness stand (the first trial). This brings to mind the remark by Andre Gide (they met in 1891) that Wilde was "religiously contriving to kill" what remained of his soul, and that the "greatest interest" of Wilde's plays "lies between the lines." For an authoritative text on Wilde's life, a detailed synopsis of this play (and others), and early reviews (by Wells, Shaw, Archer and others), the reader may wish to consult The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia by Karl Beckson.
This short run gives soap opera fans the opportunity to see Trevor St. John of One Life to Live portray Lord Goring, the dandy who inhabits a realm beyond commonplace morality. St. John possesses the "well-bred, expressionless face" called for by Wilde's stage directions. Although at times debonair, St. John's tone and range seem rather subdued and confined.
Christian Kohn and Christina Apathy portray Robert and Lady Chiltern as they should be -- estimable blockheads with the surprising capacity to get what they want in life. Apathy could better project her character's fatuousness early on, while Kohn seems rather unemotional until act four.
The production is perked up considerably by the wonderfully wicked Carolyn DeMerice as Mrs. Cheveley (she is also the producer) and an aptly wry Robert Haufrecht as Phipps, the butler. Lynne McCollough's Lady Markby is vaguely reminiscent of Edith Evans' Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film of The Importance of Being Earnest. Hal Smith Reynolds is perfect as Lord Caversham. Lian Marie-Holmes, a promising young actor who plays Miss Mabel Chiltern, has a good presence and poise on stage, as does Kevin Cramer as Mason.
Off-Off Broadway being what it is, one tries to temper one's expectations regarding production values. Costumes are more than adequate thanks to designer Stephanie Voyer. But in regard to set design, there is a minimal threshold that is not met. A large Union Jack covers the back wall of the stage. A few sticks of paltry furniture are rearranged from scene to scene. A faux Persian rug that looks like it came from Walmart blights the stage throughout. Without the chandeliers, fireplaces and tapestries that are essential in creating the atmosphere of elegance and privilege, the set is as ill-suited for a high society drama as a hotel room is for performing an ear operation.
Editor's Note: Eric's review of this modestly staged Off-Broadway productions comes at the end of a summer that saw three more lavishly staged Wilde revivals -- Lady Windemere's Fan at Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires and at the Shakespeare Theater in DC; and the play considered his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest at Barrington Stage
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