With Peter Hall’s reinvention of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” setting a new standard for the work, it’s not surprising that other productions should come up short. What is a sad surprise is how very less than ideal is South Coast Repertory’s new “Husband.” Hall’s landmark production, now on view in London and New York four years after its U.K. debut, turned a sometimes forgotten Victorian melodrama in recent decades very much an also-ran to “The Importance of Being Earnest,” though also generously larded with Wilde’s tart aphorisms into a moving picture of love broken and then reborn through the slow progress of disillusionment in an upper-crust marriage.
South Coast Rep artistic director Martin Benson has returned the mothballs to the play, in a reasonably proficient presentation that nevertheless shows up its obvious weaknesses without mining its subtler strengths. The pivotal figure in the play is Lady Chiltern, who is shattered to learn that her husband’s estimable political career was founded on a fortune acquired by dubious means. She believes her love for him is based exclusively on esteem, and turns away from him in dismay when she learns of his dishonorable past. In Debbie Gratan’s performance, Lady Chiltern comes off as a superficial, snobbish woman whose downfall we almost look forward to which rather works against the structure of the play. Her instantly spiteful behavior toward Mrs. Cheveley (Hope Alexander-Willis), the scarlet women (all too literally, in Walter Hicklin’s pretty costumes) who she little knows holds the key to her husband’s future, is not the kind of thing to be found in a proper British drawing room, to begin with. And her gradual discovery that her love for her husband was indeed deeper than she had believed has no power to move the audience. Likewise, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for Sir Robert Chiltern himself, when Mark Capri is giving a performance of fluty tones and head-tossing that is the picture of the agonized Englishman of melodrama. Wilde went over the top in several of the play’s dramatic high points, notably Chiltern’s anguished accusation that his wife’s idealization of him is to blame for his failures, and Capri duly goes right over with him. As Mrs. Cheveley, the woman who hopes to blackmail Chiltern with her knowledge of his shady past, Alexander-Willis is elegantly villainous, but more nuances could be brought to light here as well; in Hall’s production, even this schemer struck chords of sympathy. Philip Anglim, as the epigram-spouting Viscount Goring, seems to be bending over backward to avoid copying Martin Shaw’s Tony-nominated turn, a delicious riff on Wilde himself. Anglim underplays throughout, though he fares better than most in this production, gliding along on the play’s comic currents while others sink in the dramatic ones. Susan Knight, too, as Chiltern’s sister Mabel, gets to tiptoe through the proceedings with little dramatic ballast, and gives a delightfully daffy performance. With Wilde’s peerless wit expertly skewering the hypocrisies of both public and private life, the play is never less than entertaining and seems particularly apt in these times, when scandalous revelations about the secrets of politicians’ past seem to arrive with increasing regularity. But with Benson seeming to be on autopilot in directing his actors, it’s hard to overlook the clumsiness of the devices by which Wilde has Mrs. Cheveley vanquished, and the prolixity of several scenes. This is an “Ideal Husband” that lacks the emotional punch it is capable of delivering; we are looking at the antics of stage figures when we should be watching human beings.