An Ideal Husband
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
November 6, 2008
Performing a revival of a classic play can prove a bit tricky these days. Usually a company or producing organization will try to put a different spin on the work to make it relevant to the current time (i.e., Shakespeare set in Iraq, Lysistrata updated to fit with the battle of the sexes as it stands in the 21st century). The Red Fern Theatre Company decided to try its hand in inserting Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband into modern-day New York City and tackling the issue of political corruption.
In Red Fern's version, adapted by Kendall Rileigh and Melanie Moyer Williams, Robert Chiltern, our "Ideal Husband," is a charismatic, honest New York Senator on the verge of defeating a fishy Alaskan oil drilling scheme. However, on the eve of his sure-to-be historic speech against the scheme, the manipulative, villainous Mrs. Cheveley (a figure from Robert's wife's past) arrives and puts a damper on his plans. It seems that the angelically pure politician, Chiltern, was marred by a mistake in his youth. He took money to keep his mouth shut about a person in the middle of the Keating 5 Scandal (a dirty money scandal that involved illegal contributions to five U.S. Senators and keyed the collapse of over 800 savings & loans) and Mrs. Cheveley has the letter as proof. If he doesn't support the Alaskan scheme, she will destroy his career. Chiltern's wife, Cynthia, who does not know about the scandal in her husband's past, denounces Mrs. Cheveley, refusing to allow her husband to give in, until Cheveley reveals Robert's secret. Cynthia, who worships Robert as her "ideal," is crushed and questions if she can still love him. Wilde's message in An Ideal Husband is a strong one, questioning the ability of two people in love to forgive one another for a sin is their past and making the statement that people should embrace each others' faults rather than hold them to impossible ideals. Pushing this primary message aside, Red Fern's production goes a bit awry.
The update, while it does raise an interesting question (should an otherwise great politician be crucified for a mistake he made when he was 22?), never quite seems necessary and, at times, makes the language and characterization a bit awkward. Most of the Wilde text is intact (and it is a wonderful, witty text), while here and there a contemporary word or reference is thrown in. However, every time one of these references is dropped, it sucks the wind out of Wilde's language and sticks out like a sore thumb. It also makes some of our main characters seem hopelessly out of time, especially in the case of Cynthia. Though played with wonderful commitment and emotional depth by Lindy Flowers, Cynthia, with her dedicated worship of her man, doesn't quite ring true as a woman who exists in the 21st century. Our seemingly foppish hero, Robert's best friend Arthur Goring, also seems a bit out of place, but Alex Ferrill fully immerses himself in Wilde's rhythm and wit and gives an outstanding, skillful, hilarious turn as Arthur; thus never giving us a moment to think he might be a bit of an anachronism in 2008.
However, the design of the show is flawless. Adrienne Kapalko gives us a wonderfully complex Manhattan apartment and Ryan J. Moller's costumes are suitably high society. And though the update of the script tends to serve more as a stumbling block to the production, the power of Wilde's language, the overall strong performance of the ensemble, and Melanie Moyer William's direction (though some of the dialogue is handled a bit heavy-handedly) end up bring the heart of the play to the forefront. Watching the show unfold, you begin to strip away the political message and focus on the importance of the strong love of the characters (most notable Robert, Arthur, and Cynthia) for one another. Each one just wants the others to be happy and will stop at nothing until they are, and they learn that their dedication to each other is really what makes them "ideal." It's a great message that Wilde gave us and it shines through in this production, making it worth seeing. Because on every level, from human relationships to the political and economic tone in America today, we all could use a reminder that though things aren't ideal, nothing is so bad that we can't recover from it.