Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the February 28,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `An Ideal Husband’

After you see "School for Scandal," Sheridan’s

delicious expose of gossip and malicious behavior in 18th-century

London, at McCarter Theater, you would be remiss not to venture up

to Paper Mill Playhouse to see "An Ideal Husband," Oscar

Wilde’s

equally nasty comedy of blackmail and scandal in 19th-century London.

It is rare to see these two perfectly suited sex and schemes-driven

gems performed in the same time span — and so smartly.

1895 began as a banner year for Wilde, who had two hits, "An Ideal

Husband" and "The Importance of Being Earnest," running

simultaneously on London stages. It ended as a bummer, however, when

Wilde went on trial for perjury and sexual offenses. His conviction

and imprisonment led to the premature closing of both shows, as well

as the well-received New York production of "Ideal Husband."

Curiously, and until Peter Hall’s London revival of "An Ideal

Husband" in 1992, the play had become more of a rarity than

"Earnest,"

or any other Wilde play. Nothing could please me more than another

opportunity to see this epigram-studded melodrama, and so soon after

seeing Hall’s acclaimed production on Broadway in 1996.

The last few years has brought about an unprecedented interest in

"An Ideal Husband," with productions springing up virtually

everywhere, as well as on film. So who would have thought it the ideal

play for the Paper Mill Playhouse? Granted, it proves a stretch for

many in the audience, who took longer to respond to the torrent of

Wilde-isms, than one might wish. This may be the fault of James

Warwick’s

too studied and formal staging of Act I, in which incidental

characters

stand, pose pretentiously, face front, and provide the play’s

exposition

in the most stilted and dull manner. Once this opening section is

past, the play, propelled now by its principal players, perks up with

spit and polish.

If Warwick’s vision avoids the darker subtext of Hall’s production,

the performers, for the main, plunge into the cheeky matters and

chatter

with aplomb. In so much as it is a critic’s job to take notes, either

mental or written, I found myself, typically too dazzled by the

cascading

epigrams and wonderfully irreverent bon mots to ponder on their full

meaning during the rush of the goings on.

But here’s a beauty. The stuffy old Earl of Caversham

(George S. Irving) asks his glib, if frightfully right, son Lord

Goring

(Daniel McDonald), "Do you understand everything you say?"

To this, the amused Lord Goring replies, "Only if I pay very close

attention." This is certainly what one must to do to fully benefit

from this subversive critique of Victorian attitudes and institutions.

Standout is Irving, whose career in theater goes back to the original

Broadway cast of "Oklahoma," and has over the years become

a Paper Mill favorite. He livens up many a talky time with his

blustery

affronts.

While "An Ideal Husband" is saturated with enough wit and

wisdom to boggle the mind, it also lingers willfully and skillfully

in its prescribed social and political milieu. It is a very serious

comedy, dealing as it does with the dishonorable past of a now

distinguished

and honorable politician. Unlike the New York production, the Paper

Mill production has affords the play all the resplendent decor and

costuming the play richly deserves. The chandelier-lit, ornately

gilded

various morning, noon, and night rooms provided by designer Michael

Anania provoke as much admiration as Wilde’s words eventually do.

"An Ideal Husband" begins with the lords and ladies of

fashionable

Belgravia who have gathered at the end of London’s social season.

These elegantly mannered, though ravenously indiscreet, gentry are

at it again in the formal reception room of Sir Robert Chiltern’s

(David Ledingham) house in Grosvenor Square. The plot is quickly sent

spinning through other rooms where some dirty laundry is getting an

airing. It is no less than blackmail that reunites Chiltern with a

woman from his past, the scheming adventuress Mrs. Cheveley (Stephanie

Beacham). Yet it is the devoted yet devastated Lady Chiltern (Fiona

Hutchison) who must unite with the wise idler Lord Goring (Daniel

McDonald) to save her career-threatened husband and thus disentangle

a scandalous web spun from power, money, and sex.

With refreshing originality, McDaniel substitutes Lord Goring’s

foppish

excesses for a boyishly savant behavior that could easily appeal to

women. Beacham, who is best know to American audiences as Sable Colby

on TV’s "Dynasty," chooses not to go over the top as the femme

fatale, Mrs. Cheveley, except when it comes to David Murin’s

devilishly

revealing gowns. Ledingham and Hutchison are excellent as the

compromised

and endangered Chilterns. Stephanie Cozart is both coy and cunning

as Mabel Chiltern, in love with Lord Goring. It’s all so marvelously

convoluted and melodramatic, so fitting in this day where sleaze

infiltrates

with such ease into our political and social affairs, and yet so

irresistibly

Wilde.

— Simon Saltzman

An Ideal Husband, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside

Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. $37 to $60. Continues through March

18.

The Importance of Oscar Wilde, Paper Mill Playhouse,

Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. A free symposium led by Wilde

scholar Patrick M. Horan and the cast of the current production of

"An Ideal Husband." Free, no reservations necessary.

Tuesday,

March 13, 7:30 p.m.


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