ST. PETERSBURG — Even though An Ideal Husband is set in London in 1895, it may be the most topical play you'll see all year. Oscar Wilde's brilliant cynicism about money, power and politics is the perfect antidote for this season of discontent, if not despair, over sanctimonious ideology run amok in Washington, malfeasance on Wall Street and pork barrel corruption in Tallahassee. A cracking good yarn about the foibles of the ruling class does wonders for your sense of historical perspective.
Wilde's play is about Sir Robert Chiltern, an up and coming member of Parliament, whose magnificent career, riches and "ideal" marriage are threatened to be destroyed by disclosure of a secret, which is known to a redheaded femme fatale with ties to his past, a certain Mrs. Chevely, who is devilishly clever and not without a few shady secrets of her own. In today's depressingly low-minded culture, the political vulnerabilities often involve sex, or some pathetic degradation thereof (see Weiner, Anthony), but An Ideal Husband deals in good old-fashioned payoffs for "private information about a certain transaction contemplated by the government," as Sir Robert puts it. "Private information is practically the source of every large modern fortune."
A dominant aspect of the production, now playing at American Stage and directed by Todd Olson, stems from Daniel Morris' adaptation, featuring as many gender-bending costume changes as Irma Vep, which is confusing at first but soon becomes fun to follow. Wilde's play has 15 characters, including footmen, servants and an attache at the French embassy. Morris whittles it down to 11 characters, and they're portrayed by just four actors. So, for example, Richard B. Watson not only plays Sir Robert but also such small roles as Lady Basildon and a butler named Mason. In a minor tour de force, all four cast members appear as Phipps, whom Wilde suggests is the "ideal butler" because of his impassivity.
Amanda Collins is sparkling in two of the plummiest roles, the delightfully villainous Mrs. Cheveley and Mabel Chiltern, a bright young thing (and Sir Robert's sister) whose witty relationship with Lord Goring (Lewis D. Wheeler) is modeled on Beatrice and Benedick, Shakespeare's bantering lovers in Much Ado About Nothing. Wheeler emphasizes the narcissism of Goring, which is fine for such a high-society dandy, but all the prancing and posing tends to shortchange his lordship's wisdom.
Along with politics, Wilde is concerned with relations between men and women, as embodied in the marriage of Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern, played by Magdalyn Donnelly. Her idealization of her husband, played by Watson with a perpetually pained expression on his chiseled profile, is not particularly persuasive, one of several dramaturgical problems in the play (another is the conveniently lost and found brooch/bracelet that does in Mrs. Cheveley). Freed from the thankless role of wronged spouse, Donnelly shines as Lord Caversham (father of Lord Goring), a Tory cartoon complete with Charlie Chaplin paste-on mustache.
I'm no expert on English accents, or English performance styles, but at times the hooty language of the cast gets a bit out of hand, its slap-happy, generic quality seeming as appropriate for Noel Coward in the 1930s as for Wilde in the 1890s. Surely there's a difference.
An Ideal Husband is a co-production by American Stage and Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre on Cape Cod, where it played over the summer. The actors are repeating their performances here, and have settled back into their roles nicely, though the two men do not appear to be natural-born drag performers. Or maybe they're just overwhelmed by the amazing Victorian costumes (splendidly designed by Anne Miggins) and wigs they have to get in and out of so quickly. Not for nothing do three dressers come out from backstage to take bows at the end of the play.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.