Not ideal Oscar Wilde, but with hints of it

Luigi Sottile as the leading character, Lord Goring, and Kate Fahrner as Mrs. Cheveley, who threatens to expose him.
Luigi Sottile as the leading character, Lord Goring, and Kate Fahrner as Mrs. Cheveley, who threatens to expose him. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: January 25, 2013

Must perfection always be so temporary? More than we realize, replies Oscar Wilde in his play An Ideal Husband, if only because it never really exists.

The road to such a conclusion is a nasty tale of ruthless blackmail unfolding in upper-class Victorian England that proceeds so confidently, you may leave the Walnut Street Theatre's handsome new production wondering why the play isn't done as often as The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast was uneven in significant places at Wednesday's opening. But, as the play so pointedly points out, nothing is ideal.

The plot strains at the seams of its comic framework as its characters, with trademark Wilde witticisms, face the biggest checkmate of their lives. The rich, beautiful widow Mrs. Cheveley has invested her fortune in a canal project that's doomed to failure without governmental support in the form of Sir Robert Chiltern, who is dead set against it until Mrs. Cheveley theatens to expose an act of insider trading from his past: What initially built his career may now ruin it - as well as his seemingly perfect marriage.

Amid questions about situational ethics, mediated truth, and the innate messiness of human relationships, Wilde utilized a catalog of comic theater techniques. The third act verges on farce with lots of doors and rooms with the wrong people in them. Set changes in Robert Andrew Kovach's scenic design are fun: You watch interiors transformed when a door is replaced by a painting, and statues exit. Colleen Grady's costumes aren't just lavish: Puffed sleeves and precariously positioned hats telegraph how easily this world's enviable veneer can implode.

Yet Wednesday's performance was vaguely unsatisfying. The culprit may well have been, incongruously enough, the effect of Jerry Seinfeld, whose comic rhythms and emotionally cool manner have become deeply ingrained in our comic culture. When applied to Wilde (consciously or not), there are plenty of laughs but a sameness of inflection and less-dimensional characters.

It's an intermittent problem, but evident especially with Luigi Sottile as the leading character, Lord Goring. You even feel him stepping outside his character while relishing the wit of the line he's about to deliver. Seinfeldesque brittleness also robbed Goring of the underlying sweetness that connects the coordinate points of his personality.

Mrs. Cheveley, though, had the right mixture of aristocratic reserve and low-born aggression thanks to Kate Fahrner, whose porcelain appearance suggested her nonporous shield of self-interest. The Chilterns, Ian Merrill Peakes and Jennie Eisenhower, weren't the most charismatic casting but registered the underlying passion that made the demise of their marriage tragic.

I wanted more soul from Lynnia Shanley's Mabel, who captures Goring's heart. But master character actor Ian D. Clark made you welcome every entrance by Goring's cranky, tedious dad. So if this production isn't a peak encounter with Wilde, it sometimes shows you what such a thing might be like.


An Ideal Husband

Through March 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $10-$65. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.


Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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