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Oscar Wilde is most widely remembered for his social commentary, particularly in the form of two satiric comedies, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and the somewhat less produced “An Ideal Husband.” Both poke fun at the pomposity and formality of the lives of the Victorian English elite, involve some form of silly situation based on that formality, and come to a conclusion which combines the logical with the remarkable.
Which makes it a great pleasure to see the latter, “An Ideal Husband,” has come to the Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, a fine cast – once they get going – create all the understated, mildly poignant, delightful commentary one expects from a Wilde play. More delightfully, its essential conundrum – the ridiculousness of expecting any human being to be perfect – is as true for our time as it was for Wilde’s, particularly given the play’s political setting.
The tale concerns Sir Robert Chiltern (Jonathon Lamer), a man whose life in politics has brought wealth, prominence, and a reputation for meticulous honesty. It has also brought a wife he loves dearly (Gaby Santinelli), whose love for him, though profound, is based heavily upon her understanding of him as the model man and ideal husband. Then the mysterious Mrs. Cheveley (Ann Noble) arrives from the Continent, bearing a secret of Chiltern’s past and an extortive proposition. Will Chiltern cave in to keep a political indiscretion silent, and preserve his wife’s love, or will he defeat Mrs. Cheveley at the cost of his reputation? The plot thickens.
Under the direction of Gigi Bermingham, the piece has the proper formal feel, and the proper human undertones. Though a wordy and somewhat static first act doesn’t quite overcome potential dullness of exposition, the second half soars – funny, recognizable, engaging and in the end charmingly silly. One wonders how much of that ponderous beginning came from opening night jitters, and how much from directorial lack of action to counteract the preponderance of words. In any case, the play proves delightful, if folks stick it out to the second act.
Certainly, the cast looks and feels appropriate for this Victorian puzzle. Lamer balances passion, position and puzzle well as the embattled Sir Robert. Santinelli makes a warm and motherly wife to him, and it is fun to watch her move past her edges toward a more natural affection. Noble’s icy charm brings a real edge to the villainous Mrs. Cheveley. Some of the best of the play comes from her interactions with Michael Matthys’ Lord Goring, Chiltern’s supposedly bon vivant buddy who proves his eventual rescuer.
Ata Farhadi and Albert Garnica make much of the wise servants of the two households involved. Lizzie Zerebko embodies the determined naiveté of the Victorian debutante, while John Combs and Alexandra Napier give humanity and class consciousness a spin as two of the Chiltern’s upper crust friends.
Kudos must go to Cesar Retana-Holguin for a period-appropriate and facile set. Naila Alladin Sanders has come up with evocatively period-based clothing. Indeed, the technical aspects show a polish which places the piece effortlessly in time.
“An Ideal Husband” has an ironic edge for the modern playgoer. This piece with its discussion of the importance or lack of importance of secrets, and its argument for truth even in the face of public shame, was a hit in London just as Wilde’s own life was unraveling. His own passions were about to land him in jail, as the secret of his homosexuality hit the courtroom. If only his own story could have had a charmingly concocted an ending.
What: “An Ideal Husband” When: Through February 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, as well as 7 p.m. Sunday, February 9, and 8 p.m. Thursdays February 13 and 20 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors and students, $15 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org