Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
An Ideal Husband
Also see Eddie's review of Anything Goes
In the midst of his own infidelities to his wife via his live-in male lover becoming headlines and a life-ruining court case, the famed and wildly popular poet, playwright, and novelist (as well as celebrated, itinerant speaker in the U.S.) wrote a play still widely produced almost 125 years later, ironically titled, given his own situation, An Ideal Husband. Pear Theatre is presenting a totally pleasing, well acted and directed An Ideal Husband in which themes of political corruption, wealth at any costs, deception and blackmail are countered by those of the power of friendship, love and forgivenessthemes still very relevant in our own current, best-and-worst-of-times environment.
Oscar Wilde set his comedy of manners in two drawing rooms of London's 1895 upper class, on this stage simply but smartly and eloquently designed by Jenny Hollingworth and Elizabeth Kruse Craig. Immediately, we are introduced to a number of deliciously silly, pompous and pious characters full of juicy gossip, tongue-in-cheek quips, and upturned-nose moralities. Donned exquisitely in the latest of Victorian high fashion by costume designer Patricia Tyler, a bevy of formally dressed sorts alight from their carriages at the home of Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern. Included among them is the most congenial Lady Markby who twitters about, commenting with an always pleasant, patrician air about current London society and fellow socialites. Played by Monica Cappuccini, her Lady Markby speaks with exacting Queen's English, with lips that move in intriguingly full motion to pronounce each syllable distinctly perfectly, immediately setting a high standard of upper-crust dialect and manners that overall is fully met by the evening's entire cast of eight.
Lady Markby has brought with her this particular evening a former Londoner now living in Vienna, the elegant Mrs. Cheveley (Kelsey Tresemer), who quickly begins parsing out pronounced opinions about subjects like women ("The strength of women comes from the fat that psychology cannot explain us."), science ("Science can never grapple with the irrational. That is why it has no future before it, in this world."), and philanthropy ("...philanthropy seems to me to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow creatures."). But what this visitor clearly revels in is politics, declaring it "my only pleasure."
Mrs. Cheveley, however, is not here just to impress others with her worldly views or to give Oscar Wilde an avenue to amuse all of us with his own sardonic views of Victorian society. She has arrived to blackmail the highly esteemed by all host of the evening, Sir Robert Chiltern (Daniel Zafer-Joyce). As she turns to that task, Kelsey Tresemer excels in a viperous, superior-over-all manner. She sizzles with cynicism and is able to smile in the most evil of manners even as she is demanding her price and making her threats throughout the next twenty-four hours of the play's time period. Her weapon to exact Sir Robert's House of Commons support for a fraudulent, Argentinian canal she has heavily invested is a damning note in her possession that he wrote twenty years prior when he used cabinet-level, confidential knowledge to make an insider investment that led to his current wealth. There is evil delight in her eyes as she backs into a corner the man everyone else believes is one of the few honest politicians of the day, with Tresemer making her Mrs. Cheveley someone we cannot help loving to hate.
Daniel Zafer-Joyce's Sir Robert is like the teacher's pet suddenly caught in school cheating, who is now near bursting into terrified tears, trying desperately to figure out what to do next. With deer-in-the-headlights frozen looks, he turns to his dearest friend, Lord Arthur Goring (Aaron Weisberg), the play's big-hearted, jolly dandy to whom Sir Robert has earlier announced in friendly jest as "the idlest man in London." That he turns for counsel to Arthur is instantly funny since this is the man who has earlier remarked of another situation, "I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself."
To this same Lord Goring goes not only Sir Robert but also Sir Robert's extremely moralistic wife, Lady Gertrude, played in posture-perfect stance by Ellen Dunphy. Lady Gertrude exudes saintly sanctimony and has a firm belief that she could only ever love a man who is sin-free. That she blindly believes her husband is above all in his morals sets her up for a huge plunge of faith and the question of how can she continue to love him once the truth of his past comes out. An innocent note on pink paper that Lady Gertrude sends to her friend Lord Goring, asking for his help, becomes another weapon for the diabolical Mrs. Cheveley, who clearly delights in possibly ruining the holier-than-thou former schoolmate she never has liked.
Lord Goring is clearly Oscar Wilde's insertion of himself into the play, dressed in flowery, flamboyant manners and making pithy, punchy observations about any subject that is raised, especially including himself. With a voice that slides an octave on any one syllable and with flips of hands, eyes, and head that punctuate his constant quips, Aaron Weisberg is a fabulous Lord Goring as he spins out the jewels that Oscar Wilde himself would say if he were on the stage, comments like the following:
"I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about."
"I prefer a gentlemanly fool any day. There is more to be said for stupidity than people imagine. Personally I have a great admiration for stupidity."
"She wore too much rouge last night and not quite enough clothes. That is always a sign of despair in a woman."
That Lord Goring is Oscar's implied stand-in for himself is one of the play's great ironies. Lord Goring is the one who will advocate forgiveness for past transgressions and will help assure continued marital bliss and societal good standing for his friend Sir Robert. We now know that it is Oscar Wilde himself at the time of this writing who needed such forgiveness, which unfortunately he would not receiveat least not until long after heading to jail and ruining his own marriage and career. This makes watching An Ideal Husband and the role of Lord Arthur in orchestrating the eventual happy ending even more fascinating.
Helping round out this wonderful cast is Tom Farley as Lord Arthur's crusty, elderly father Lord Caversham, who speaks in raspy voice plenty of his own spirited opinions about everything from London society ("... a lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing.") to his "good-for-nothing" son who has thus far refused to marry. But Mabel Chiltern (Ellen Dunphy), the sister of Sir Robert, has her eyes set on Lord Arthur (he just does not know that yet), and it turns out she just might be the perfect match. Cindy Weisberg's cheerful but pointed retorts as a captivating, clever Mabel are often a mirror image of Lord Goring himself (and thus of Oscar Wilde):
"Geniuses talk so much, don't they? Such a bad habit. And they are always thinking about themselves when I want them to be thinking about me."
(Goring: "Mabel, please be serious.") Mabel: "Ah, that is the sort of thing a man always says to a girl before he has been married to her. He never says it afterwards."
In the end, nothing sells the idea of seeing an Oscar Wilde play better than Oscar Wilde himself. His scripts are packed with punch lines that still take pointed but oft-needed jabs at our own American society and sense of morals just as they did back in London's Victorian days. Director Jenny Hollingworth has ensured that the script of An Ideal Husband reigns supreme in this excellent Pear Theatre production, with a cast that is serious about being funny without ever becoming ridiculous or outdated, allowing thematic points to zing to our attention and obvious parallels to be readily made to our own Trump-dominated world.
An Ideal Husband, through September 17, 2019, at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View CA. Tickets and information are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.