Extremely fun

Review: `An Ideal Husband' is delightful theater at Center Stage.

September 30, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

If you think Nixon mastered the art of dirty tricks and Clinton perfected the art of the public confession, Center Stage's highly entertaining revival of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" will make you think again.

Although director Irene Lewis keeps this century-old comedy strictly within its original time period, Wilde's witty, trenchant commentary on the tensions between men and women, and especially between public and private life, is startlingly modern.

"A man who can't talk morality twice a week to a large, popular, immoral audience is quite over as a serious politician," one character asserts. "Truth is a very complex thing," claims another.

The action of the play turns on the timeworn device of a compromising letter. In this case, the letter -- which revealed a state secret -- was written many years ago by a politician named Sir Robert Chiltern, who is revered for his immaculate reputation. Now the dangerous document has fallen into the hands of an unscrupulous blackmailer named Mrs. Cheveley, a detested former schoolmate of Sir Robert's wife, Gertrude.

In desperation, Sir Robert turns to his closest friend, Lord Goring, for advice. A playboy and a dandy, Goring might seem an unlikely confidante for Sir Robert, and former Marylander David Adkins plays him as a preening narcissist who can't resist stealing a glance at his own reflection whenever he opens his silver cigarette case. Outwardly, Goring is the antithesis of "ideal," upright Sir Robert, who is portrayed by stuffy John C. Vennema as a figure of so much moral fortitude, he's downright dull.

Goring, however, ultimately engineers the solution to the Chilterns' troubles and grows up in the process. His clever, epigrammatic speech -- "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance," "Vulgarity is simply the conduct of other people," etc. -- coupled with a devil-may-care demeanor, make him an obvious stand-in for the playwright.

Other productions sometimes present the character costumed and made up to resemble Wilde. Director Lewis wisely does not choose that simplistic interpretation, however, and while Adkins depicts Goring as a dashing man-about-town -- albeit one with a tendency to bat his eyes rather distractingly -- he also lets us see the serious, decent heart that beats beneath the character's exterior finery.

"An Ideal Husband" is in many ways a comment on extremes -- and, as Goring impresses on the stiff-necked Chilterns, the need for reasonableness and forgiveness. The characters who best embody the play's extremes are Gertrude Chiltern, portrayed by the beautiful Olivia Birkelund as a creature so perfect and pure, she looks, and behaves, as if she's made of bone china, and Mrs. Cheveley, played by Mari Nelson as a woman of the world whose principles are as pliable as her unruly auburn curls.

The most balanced character is Sir Robert's younger sister, Mabel, who is besotted with Lord Goring. As played by Claire Lautier, Mabel is very much his ideal match. Not only does she exhibit the same fun-filled spirit, but her repartee is delivered as sharply as his, and like him, she clearly possesses a good heart.

Lewis and her designers (Allen Moyer, sets; Constance Hoffman, costumes; Mimi Jordan Sherin, lights) have created a production that is as delightful to look at as it is to listen to, and Lewis' trademark scene changes offer wonderful little windows into the true natures of the characters, as well as the playwright. For example, though there isn't the faintest reference to homosexuality in the text, choreographer Ken Roberson has devised little entr'acte dances between the male servants, reminding the audience of Wilde's personal ideal.

It is a sad irony that although Wilde understood how scandal could crush the career of Sir Robert Chiltern, he recklessly plunged himself into a public scandal of his own, perhaps assuming that his fame, style and wit would be his salvation. "An Ideal Husband" opened only months before his conviction for "gross indecency," which led to a prison sentence and, a few years later, his death at the age of 46.

Unlike his characters, who learned the value of moderation and privacy -- and knew the fear of public outrage -- Wilde did not find forgiveness. Instead, his ordeal destroyed him and robbed audiences of more sparkling, insightful comedies unmasking the foibles of human nature. Center Stage's fine production reminds us of how great a loss that was.

`An Ideal Husband'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, 1 p.m. Oct. 13. Through Oct. 24

Tickets: $10-$40

Call: 410-332-0033

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