For proof that it’s hard to ruin Oscar Wilde, just look to Jambalaya Prods.’ take on “An Ideal Husband.” Although it’s riddled with mediocrity, the staging can’t obscure the playwright’s talent. There’s fun to be had just following the intricate plot — about schemes to defame politician Robert Chiltern (Christian Kohn) — and a robot couldn’t take the sparkle out of Wilde’s epigrams. Still, it would be nice if this production actually enhanced the play’s genius, rather than distracting from it so often.
But let’s face it, you can’t make smart theater if you treat your audience like twits. Director Robert Francis Perillo has strip-mined the subtlety from his material, leaving us with what should be called “An Ideal Husband for Dummies.” For one thing, in order to focus on the central conflict, pages of dialogue and several characters have been axed. That loss of texture could be excused if Perillo trusted us to follow the reduced narrative, but he insists on spelling out the political intrigue.
When characters first enter, for example, the action freezes, music blares and a butler shouts his or her name. Then there’s a pause so the crowd can absorb who’s who. The actors may as well wear name badges, since Wilde’s script obviously can’t be expected to make itself understood.
Set designer Mark Delancey continues the spoon-feeding with his shallow politics. For most of the show, a Union Jack cloaks the upstage wall, but in the last moment it drops to reveal the Stars and Stripes. Granted, Wilde’s script does have contemporary relevance, but smugly showing the American flag, as though that says it all, just reduces the layers of meaning into a symbol so vague it means nothing in this context. That’s the laziest kind of analysis.
Sadly, it’s hard to see past this undercooked statement, since Charles Cameron’s lights illuminate little but the walls. And the design collapse continues as composer Michelangelo Sosnowitz ends every scene with the same jarring chords.
Among the ensemble, only Christina Apathy manages a meaty perf. As Lady Chiltern, Robert’s nobly suffering wife, she gives her fear of public shame the mix of selfishness and spousal concern the writing demands. Her cast mates skate the surfaces of their roles, missing the depth in Wilde’s dandies, domestics and devious ladies.
That’s a shame, because great actors could spark the debates “An Ideal Husband” invites. Might we, for instance, read the ending as ironic instead of misogynistic? And what should we make of the subtle class war between the servants and their masters? Such are the questions this great play holds, but it takes a great production to ask them.