Static Wit

Main Street's take on Wilde isn't Ideal, but it's not bad

Like the Corot paintings that hung in a proper Victorian drawing room, the stage picture presented in Main Street Theater's production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband is breathtakingly lovely. It's also, like a portrait, almost completely static. Despite the pleasure of Wilde's quick wit and the timeless appeal of marital themes, director Peter Webster has struggled in presenting the 1895 play for a contemporary, and occasionally sleepy, audience. Part of the problem is that, for better or for worse, modern crowds don't like to sit for more than two hours, and a full production of An Ideal Husband weighs in at about three. The other directorial challenge in producing the play is the lack of action -- characters don't move around much in An Ideal Husband. Rather, they sit in well-upholstered chairs and make clever remarks. Charming as those comments may be, they aren't quite enough to qualify as a riveting theatrical experience.

Well, okay. It's a bit much to compare the well-made play, a dramatic form whose roots are in the 18th century, to works that adhere to contemporary dramatic conventions of quick scene changes, overlapping dialogue and brief exposition. We can, however, compare the form to that of contemporary Broadway comedies -- Neil Simon's self-referential work is a middle-class cousin -- though An Ideal Husband deals in loftier ideas and more sophisticated language than plays of Simon's ilk. Add to that sophistication beautiful period costumes, a soft palette of lighting and actors who understand the necessary balance between gloss and wit in Wilde, and you have what Main Street offers: an amusing and solid production.

Wilde wrote only five plays, and judging from the rapt attention paid to the three that have been produced in Houston in the past year (The Alley's The Importance of Being Earnest, Free Range Arts Foundation's Salome and now Main Street's An Ideal Husband), the Irish wit's humor has survived admirably the passage of time. Written in the same period as his satirical masterwork The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband is more ambitious, if less successful, than that farce, intoning a moral lesson along with its intricate plot turns and political backdrop. A chess game set in the world of Parliament and venture capitalism, An Ideal Husband's intrigue begins with a visit from the worldly and wicked Mrs. Cheveley, played by Celeste Cheramie. In the parlor of revered Parliamentarian Sir Robert Chiltern and his wife, Lady Chiltern, Cheveley discusses her interest in a scheme to build an ill-planned canal, a project she wants Sir Chiltern to invest in. When he refuses, Cheveley produces a letter with particularly damning evidence against Chiltern -- a letter that, if leaked to the public, would destroy his career and ruin his marriage.

In true well-made play fashion, An Ideal Husband follows the letter as it creates troublesome, and often humorous, consequences. This being a play about ideas, there's very little action associated with the letter's fate, but there are moments in which the tangled web of social propriety and naked desire for wealth and power create tension. More often, though, the experience of this production is one of sitting and watching people who are sitting and talking. The result is a few long, dull stretches during which it's not a rare thing to see the occasional nodding head in the audience.

There are some fine directorial touches, however, in particular a frozen moment late in Act One when the web of liaisons is mapped out: couples stand in doorways and poise on a chaise, unwittingly matched up with their adversaries. But there are other important moments that don't work as well. When the letter is finally in great peril, the question of whether or not it's destroyed isn't clear, though it should be. And the portrayal of emotion, so crystalline in some cases, is perceptibly lacking in others. When Lady Chiltern (Erica Garrison) holds her husband's face in a mixture of agony and love, she squeezes him like a prize eggplant rather than handling him with the gentle appraisal her dialogue suggests.

The younger, foppish set of characters, Miss Mabel Chiltern (Shannon Emerick) and Lord Goring (Joel Sandel), provides a breath of life. Main Street fans will remember Emerick's vibrance as Thomasina in Arcadia, and she's every bit as good in the role of Mabel, a somewhat sassy ("I'm so sick of pearls," she laments at one point, "they make one look so pure and so intellectual") young lady. As Goring, Sandel offers the right amount of playboyish remove, and seems genuinely perplexed by the tangle the letter's intrigue draws him into.

The cast accomplishes an adept layering of humor and moral discovery, from Cheramie's sexual and political maneuvering as Lady Cheveley to Sandel's slow realization that he has a remarkably noble code of ethics. In the complex role of Sir Robert Chiltern, the titular ideal husband, however, David Grant falls short. Genuine and touching in his scenes with Garrison, his performance is far less inventive in the last act of the play, where it seems he was directed to wring his hands and fret.

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