Friday, August 20, 2010

Walk on two Wilde sides

In Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, the audience essentially gets two plays for the price of one. The first is an elegantly constructed farce that glitters with epigrams just as brilliant as those in Wilde's masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (which would follow Husband in a matter of months). The second is an absorbing drama in which ethical lapses come back to haunt the flawed people who committed them - a drama that is subtle in its characterizations and calmly sympathetic in its moral perspective.

But you see the problem. An Ideal Husband often seems divided against itself, as sparkling archness and mournful self-awareness seem like incompatible tones; yet they co-existed within this particular author, and thus are constant bedfellows in this strange portmanteau-play, which is mischievous and moving by turns.

I confess I've never seen these two sides of Wilde brought into alignment - although the possibility of doing so remains tantalizing, and even though I mostly enjoyed Gloucester Stage's rendition, directed by local star Karen MacDonald, which runs through August 29.

But wait, there's more background. This production was inspired by a hilarious version done up in drag by Bad Habit Productions last winter (which I reviewed here). Working from a slightly trimmed text, the witty kids at Bad Habit whipped up a ditzy, Hasty-Pudding-style farce in which everyone was either slipping into or out of drag practically every minute; the results were a hoot, but blind-sided the serious half of the play; as I wrote then, the audience had to just sit through those parts and wait for the epigrams to crank up again.

Enter MacDonald, who was clearly hoping to weld those high spirits to a deeper reading of the drama. Alas, the resulting polyglot feels like neither fish nor fowl - although often it does fluff its feathers, or flex its fins. The trouble this time around is that the drama predominates, which makes the farce (and the drag) feel a bit forced - particularly since Wilde's factotum in the play, Lord Goring, is here played resolutely straight (and successfully so) by Lewis Wheeler. But the resonance of the drag motif depends on Goring being a closet case, frankly - so if he's definitely hetero, we wonder to ourselves, why is everybody else cross-gendered?

Oh, well, ours is not to reason Wilde, I suppose. The good news is that MacDonald does well by most of the scenes individually - she just can't make them hang together; I think she's a genuine director (in addition to being one of our best actresses). Which doesn't mean quite all of her dramatic ideas come off - and she misses completely the opportunity to make Wilde's villain, the seductive Mrs. Chevely, truly complex in the play's climactic scene.

Elsewhere, however, she draws credible work from a cast that hasn't always been ideally cast. Wheeler, as mentioned, is believable husband material, and if he doesn't convey the hint of hauntedness that makes a great Lord Goring (the play all too obviously parallels the author's own situation), still, he delivers Wilde's wit with confidence - and that's half the game. As the compromised powerbroker whose past has at last caught up with him, Brendan Powers proved almost as charming, although he seems a bit young for the role, and not, perhaps, truly guilt-stricken. The strongest performance in the cast came from Angie Jepson (above left, with Wheeler) as the sparkling Mabel - although she was double-cast as the scheming Mrs. Cheveley, which proved a stretch - she hasn't either the experience or presence (yet) for what may be Wilde's greatest character. As the naively unbending wife of that tainted powerbroker, Carrie Ann Quinn was even more at sea, I'm afraid, although she did grow in vulnerable complexity as the play progressed.

But somehow much of the Gloucester production, particularly in the play's superior first half, was subtly gripping despite these flaws. Then again, I've never seen this play fail (compare to Romeo and Juliet, which never succeeds). This version may not be ideal, but it's thoughtful enough to convey the essence of Wilde's ideas - and far more thoughtful than much of our regular-season fare. With it, Gloucester Stage continues to cement its reputation as our best local summer theatre.