Static Wit

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.

Wilde's language fares well here, and if the rare emotional scene isn't quite up to par, it's a failure possible to forgive, thanks to Main Street's offering a complex reading of the many timeless themes An Ideal Husband has to offer. Like the empty picture frames that hang in the set, the production is wide open for an intellectually engaged audience. All it needs is a little expedience to keep that audience awake.

There may be a raft of little girl musicals heading our way shortly, particularly if Theatre Under the Stars's current revival of Annie has the same winsome opening on Broadway that it did last Friday night in Houston. The score has survived wonderfully, despite the onslaught of the musical's most popular song, "Tomorrow," in countless auditions and talent showcases over the last 20 years. TUTS's production boasts the direction of the show's lyricist and original Broadway director, Martin Charnin, whose reputation for clever, heartfelt lyrics is at least as well known as his gift for graceful direction. In that vein, it is not the optimistic, brassy "Tomorrow" that characterizes TUTS's production; instead, it's the longing of Annie's plea for parents in the achingly lovely "Maybe."

In many ways, Annie represents the best that the big Broadway musical has to offer: It has an interesting historical context, it has a sufficiently nasty (and comic) subplot and it has a bold, wide-ranging score. Of course, Annie's orphan to opulence story doesn't hurt the show's enduring popularity, and despite the fact that it occasionally ignores theatrical wisdom (children and a dog on-stage!), the show survives as an endearingly hopeful piece of Americana. It's also the kind of musical that harks back to Broadway's renaissance of the late '70s, when shows were meticulously crafted from the book to the orchestra pit.

After a much publicized search for the new Annie and her pals, an 11-year-old from Philadelphia, Joanna Pacitti, came out on top. Though her voice may not be quite as spectacular as that of the original Annie, Andrea McArdle, whose clear soprano charmed audiences in 1977, Pacitti brings a tenderness to the title character that resonates nicely with the play's message: When you get to the top, don't forget the people you left behind.

Nothing much has changed in the show's look -- sets, costumes, even the choreography look nearly identical to the original production, and the play is the better for it, given the loving attention to detail, from the orphans' scrub brushes to Warbucks's encyclopedic art collection, that marks Annie's era. What's new in TUTS's production is African-American actress Roz Ryan as the evil orphanage director, Miss Hannigan. No doubt drawing on her bluesy, vibrato roles in Ain't Misbehavin' and Blues in the Night, Ryan adds flavor to Miss Hannigan's drunken, mean-spirited nature without blowing the cartoon too far over the top. The same can't always be said of Jim Ryan, whose ebullience as her dirty gangster brother Rooster is occasionally overpowering.

The keystone in this scrappy tale is Oliver Warbucks, the billionaire who can put FDR on hold to chat about Lou Gehrig's talent at baseball. He's just the kind of guy that an orphan needs to find her long lost parents. As played by John Schuck, Warbucks is gruffly sweet, suddenly remembering not to swear when Annie is in the room and showing her how to waltz around his palatial home. Schuck and Pacitti are warm and comic together -- and their second act duet, "I Don't Need Anything but You," delighted the opening night audience.

TUTS's fine stagecraft means equally adept ensemble numbers, and the first act's "We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover" comes through nicely, with shantytown bums parodying a soft-shoe tribute to politicians, as does the reprisal of "Tomorrow" in FDR's Oval Office. Can a president make his cabinet members sing in harmony? He can if he's in a musical.

What works most wonderfully in this production is the story's sense of humor and writer Thomas Meehan's balanced story of love and longing. (Meehan, incidentally, hated the show's concept at first.) There are contemporary musicals that are as good as Annie, but few that can resonate on so many different levels, and even fewer that will weather 20 years with nearly as much charm.

An Ideal Husband plays through December 22 at Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706; Annie plays through December 15 at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, (800) 766-6048.

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Megan Halverson