Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Off Off Broadway: An Ideal Husband

Whitney Kaufman as Lady Gertrude Chiltern, Aaron Gaines as Sir Robert Chiltern, and Stuart Williams as Lord Arthur Goring.  Photo by Christopher Thompson.
We haven’t been to the theatre much recently, what with our trip to the Galapagos and other distractions, but now that we’ve settled back into our lives in New York, we’ve resumed our theatergoing with a vengeance.  And we’ve gotten off to a great start with Sink or Swim Rep’s splendid revival of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, running through July at the Connelly Theater on East 4th Street.  This is one of Wilde’s most epigrammatic and entertaining works, reflective of the difficulties he was encountering in his own life at the time of its creation in the 1890s and scathing in its indictment of Victorian hypocrisy.  And this production – from the sets to the costumes, from the direction to the casting, and especially the performances – more than does it justice.

When Mrs. Cheveley (Amanda Jones) unexpectedly arrives at a dinner party at the Grosvenor Square home of Sir Robert Chiltern (Aaron Gaines) and his wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern (Whitney Kaufman) in London in 1895, it is quickly apparent that her arrival bodes no good for the Chilterns. Sir Robert is now an up and coming member of the House of Commons and a seemingly “ideal husband” but once, in his foolish youth, he provided cabinet secrets to a market speculator and his recompense from that insider trading transgression gave him the seed money from which his present fortune and power have been derived.  If that youthful transgression were ever to be revealed, Sir Robert would be disgraced and his family and future would be destroyed.  And Mrs.Cheveley knows all about it, she has an incriminating letter to prove it, and she’s just the one to use it.

Mrs. Cheveley is sinuously evil but she’s not dumb; she’s certainly self-interested; and she’s willing to let Sir Robert off the hook – but only for a price.  She will give him the incriminating letter and keep his secret - if he agrees to reverse his public opposition to a fraudulent scam involving the proposed building of an Argentine canal in which she has invested.  Having recognized the scam for what it is, Robert previously had made known his opposition to it but now, fearing the revelation of his past misdeed, he reluctantly agrees to Mrs. Chevely’s demand that he reverse course and endorse the project.

When the beautiful, educated, upright and elegant Lady Chiltern, an early exemplar of the Victorian “new woman,” unaware of Sir Robert’s youthful transgression and equally unaware of Mrs. Cheveley’s blackmail attempt, learns of Robert’s intention to speak in favor of the project in the House of Commons, she is stunned and outraged.  A woman of great propriety, she prevails on Sir Robert to reverse course yet again, to do the right thing, and to oppose the scam publicly.

On the horns of a dilemma, Sir Robert seeks guidance and assistance from his best friend, Viscount Arthur Goring (Stuart Williams), a dandyish, thirtyish, hedonistic ne’er-do-well whose character (other than his heterosexuality) is clearly based on that of Wilde himself.  (At the time of his writing this play, Wilde was himself fearful of exposure as an active homosexual and his rendition of Arthur may reflect that fear: it may go a long way toward explaining why Arthur is portrayed as the most understanding of the characters in the play, the one who is most sensitive to human weakness, the one who is least judgmental, the one who most believes in forgiveness for past sins, and the one who is most aware of and the most critical of Victorian hypocrisy, posturing and moral inflexibility.)  Arthur does come to Sir Robert’s aid, in more ways than one.

The resolution of Sir Robert’s predicament is complex, convoluted and great fun.  Along the way, we are constantly reminded that all is not black and white, that perhaps being the “ideal husband” (or the “ideal” anything for that matter) may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and that, perhaps, we all should be slower to judge and quicker to forgive.

The play’s principal actors – Aaron Gaines as Sir Robert Chilton, Whitney Kaufman as Lady Gertrude Chilton, Amanda Jones as Mrs. Cheveley, and Stuart Williams as Viscount Arthur Goring – are all perfectly cast and play their roles brilliantly.  But some of the other supporting actors deserve mention as well:  In particular, I would credit Peter Judd for his performance as Arthur’s father, the stuffy, hidebound Earl of Caversham; Jade Anderson for her portrayal of Mabel Chilton, Sir Robert’s more traditional sister who comes across as an amusing counterpoint to Robert’s more liberated wife, Gertrude; Emily Jon Mitchell, Rachel Niehiesel and Clemmie Evans for their wonderful Victorian caricatures of Lady Markby, Mrs. Marchmont and the Countess of Basildon, respectively; and Craig Mungavin in his perfunctory no nonsense role as Phipps, the minimalist butler.

If you see this production, and I hope you will, be forewarned: there is much that is politically incorrect about it, not least of which its overt sexism.  While the Earl of Caversham, for instance, eventually does admit that Mabel exhibits “a good deal of common sense,” that must be understood within the context of his earlier declaration that “Common sense is the privilege of our sex.”  And Arthur Goring’s claim that “A man’s life is of more value than a woman’s” is readily embraced by all – including Gertrude Chiltern, herself.

But that sexism was truly reflective of the times – the play, after all, was written in the 1890s – and Sink or Swim Rep is to be commended for not attempting to paper it over and for mounting a fine and honest production that is true to Wilde’s original intent.

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