The final entry in the Broadway season is Sir Peter Hall’s splendid production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” a 100-year-old play that, happily or not, is rich with contemporary resonance. It should prove an attractive draw for Broadway crowds seeking comedy with a serious — read British — pedigree.
The play concerns a righteous politician whose rep for being clean as a whistle, and his marriage, are threatened when a woman blackmails him with evidence of an early act of malfeasance.
The fulcrum of the play is Lord Goring (Martin Shaw), a Wildean dandy who is an intimate of both the couple and blackmailer, and who brilliantly negotiates the treacherous waters among them to reach a happy conclusion — and end up engaged, to boot.
That’s the plot. What “An Ideal Husband” really is about, as this production makes exuberantly clear, is forgiveness, on the one hand, and, on the other, the more complicated permutations of morality, or of what Wilde certainly saw as the utter foolishness of moral absolutism. Though “An Ideal Husband” opened the same year as “The Importance of Being Earnest”– 1895 — it has always been overshadowed by
the latter play. But Hall, whose company first presented the play in London four years ago, makes a strong argument that this is the more serious work, not to mention the more seriously entertaining.
Sir Robert Chiltern (David Yelland), undersecretary for foreign affairs and a rising political star, launched his career with a small fortune won through an act that combined insider trading and political fraud. Since then, he has been a paragon of virtue, admired by all and adored by his wife, Lady Chiltern (Penny Downie), who has, of course, been kept in the dark on his early indiscretion.
Enter the widowed Mrs. Chevely (Anna Carteret), bearing a letter proving Sir Robert’s duplicity and demanding in exchange for the document a similar act that will make her rich. Agreeing to the gambit, Sir Robert confesses all to his wife , whose world is shattered, shattered by the news.
When the play shifts from the Chiltern home to Lord Goring’s, it also shifts from melodrama to farce, as all the participants in this morality tale pass through various doors leading from his library to adjacent rooms while he tries to straighten everything out. It takes some doing.
Pudgy and perspicacious, Lord Goring is a marvelous invention, marvelously played by Shaw. The actor bears a striking resemblance to Wilde, and Hall has allowed the character’s bisexuality to become more pronounced.
His genuine love for both Sir Robert and his wife is what makes his successful resolution of their threatened ruin so delicious. For it involves not only defeat of the avaricious Mrs. Chevely (to whom he was once briefly engaged) , but also his allowing the couple to see one another anew.
To be sure, Wilde’s idea of forgiveness is based on notions of sex that will strike many as ridiculous — namely that men conform to the straight “line of intellect,” women to the “curve of emotion,” the pinnacle of which apparently is their natural capacity for forgiveness.
Wilde mocks Lady Chiltern for being taken aback by her husband’s dishonesty, not to mention his naked ambition; while the sum total of his reparation is 36 hours of discomfiture. Nevertheless, “An Ideal Husband” is a very grown-up comedy, allowing a reconciliation between two people who truly love one another.
Shaw strikes each of these notes vividly; he appears to be having tremendous fun in the role, and the pleasure is catching. He’s very well matched by Goring’s mirror image, the Mrs. Chevely of Anna Carteret. Mrs. Chevely wears her opportunism like a second skin, and Carteret makes it a natural fit. as the spectacular (and aptly colored) green gown Doreen Brown designed for her. ]
None of the other casting is quite so felicitous. Yelland and Downey are weightless as the Chilterns; their eyes seem never to meet, and you wonder if this is, after all, a marriage worth saving. As Sir Robert’s sister Mabel, whose love for Lord Goring is known to everyone but him until the end, Victoria Hasted is almost completely without appeal.
Michael Denison plays Goring’s disapproving father like a character actor in a stock company from an earlier era (something not altogether without entertainment value). Denis Holmes sparkles, however, as Goring’s butler, Phipps.
Notwithstanding these quibbles, however, Hall has built a wonderfully entertaining evening with the clarity and simplicity — notable in Carl Toms’ simple yet elegant settings and Joe Atkins and Mike Baldassari’s unfussy lighting — that are his directorial trademark. A huge hit in London, it deserves a similar reception here.