American Players Theater’s Wilde and Hilarious ‘Ideal’
Director Laura Gordon begins her production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband at American Players Theater (playing up the hill through September 24) with her actors engaged in a silent dance: British lords and ladies in feathered and bowtied finery pirouette and pose in unison, their phony smiles stretched into near rictus grins. It’s a funny and searing metaphor for the upper-class British society Wilde so loved to skewer; in these ballrooms and drawing rooms, appearing pious and moral is always so much more important than, you know, actually being either one. As Wilde timelessly puts it in a dead-on zinger that appeared in more than a few Brexit headlines last week, this is a society filled with “beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics.”
But unlike The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s most well-known and beloved play, there’s much more at stake in An Ideal Husband than fluffy romance and cucumber sandwiches (although the former factors in as a subplot). Sir Robert Chiltern (a tightly wound David Daniel), an MP who’s also the current poster boy for British morality, stands to lose both his political career and his marriage to his idealistic wife (Colleen Madden) when the conniving Mrs. Chevely (Tracy Arnold) threatens to expose an old political scandal if he won’t support her own sketchy scheme.
The impending swirl of scandal sets into motion all sorts of delicious one-on-ones between the stalwarts of APT’s core company. Arnold excels at playing slithery and imperious villains, but she’s matched by Madden’s temper. Madden and Daniel have an interesting, unexpected chemistry we first saw back in the company’s 2014 production of Much Ado About Nothing. And we haven’t even hit on the play’s wild, or rather Wilde, card: Marcus Truschinski as Lord Goring, the play’s moral compass and bon vivant.
Truschinski, who may actually have been born for the express purpose of playing Wilde’s catalogue of cads, tears it up again, emphasizing the shallow and vain aspects of his character with a hair-slick here and a sly wink to the crowd there. Unlike Algernon Moncrieff, the character Truschinki played in APT’s The Importance of Being Earnest two years ago, Goring’s got some real-world wisdom buried under his snarky wit and dapper veneer. While he’s the walking encyclopedia of all those Wilde quotes you find on magnets and posters everywhere (“The only possible society is oneself. To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”) he’s also a caring friend who has sensible advice to offer both the Chilterns and the mental chops to outwit Mrs. Chevely, played by his real-life spouse. If only Goring could commit to Chitern’s sister Mabel (a lively Jade Payton), the potential love he keeps at arm’s length and wit’s end.
Goring’s one-liners keep the audience guffawing, but Chiltern’s emotional devastation when he’s convinced he’s lost Lady Chiltern’s love and respect carries an equal impact–especially when he demands she own the role her moral absolutism has played in his downfall. It sure sounds sweet and idealistic when she drops the line about how women worship when they love, but as Wilde would be the first to point out, blind worship of anything won’t get you very far. The strength of the play–and APT’s production of it–carries a deep understanding of what motivates these characters.
Comic moments abound elsewhere. Jennifer Latimore and Cristina Panfilio are hilarious as a pair of droll married ladies who frequent the Chilterns’ dinner parties, dispensing dreary takes on the, um, joys of matrimony (it’s impossible to tire of Panfilio in these kinds of roles–listening to her stretch her vowels and consonants until they snap like comic bubble gum is just gold.) John Pribyl has only a few scenes as Goring’s loyal servant Phipps, but he makes the comic most of each one of them.
Oddly enough, we’re living in a modern society where peccadilloes like Chiltern’s have become things that result in celebrity, bumps in the polls and book deals rather than shame, sadness and ruin. The smiles and dancing, though? They’re just as plastic as they ever were.