Not all plays written in 1893 can weather an update; something is bound to be sacrificed for the sake of modernizing, be it plot, character or theme. But An Ideal Husband is not all plays. Writer Oscar Wilde was a man who had an uncanny ability to write about the time he was living in and observing, while simultaneously writing far ahead of his time; and thus An Ideal Husband in the hands of Director Meghan Formwalt of Big Rodent productions, joyfully skips ahead 70 years to 1964 with hardly a wrinkle to show for the long journey.
The moment you lay eyes on Mrs. Cheveley (Anna Bridgforth) as she strides across the room in her peekaboo mini-dress and her fiery orange glossy wig you know this is a woman who is destined to be the center of attention. Yet, within five minutes of opening her mouth she’ll also summarily put you in your place – this is no common party gal, this is a woman who is much smarter than those around may give her credit for, and you’d be best to stay on her good side . . . which in this case is the side furthest away from her. Like Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl, Cheveley has a brain for business and a bod for sin . . .and she uses both to distract, con and manipulate those around her.
We meet this whirlwind of a woman at the home of the Chilterns on the night of a party where anyone who is anyone in London Society is in attendance. There is, of course, the mistress of the house, the proper and lovely Lady Chiltern (Sarah Krokey) who never misspeaks and never missteps. She and Mrs. Cheveley were at school together (and despised each other); when seeing them in each other’s company it’s obvious they’re as different as night and day. Lady Chiltern’s husband, Sir Robert Chiltern (Adam Aguirre) is as utterly devoted to his wife as he is to upholding his principals as Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs in The House of Commons. He’s noble, but like any good main character – he’s hiding something. Lord Goring (Joe Mathers) is the quintessential Wilde character – the playboy, the dandy, the observer. He’s the best dressed, is utterly charming, utterly quotable (“I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself”) and he’s reasonably devoted to his friends provided he can tear himself away from his own reflection for a moment.
Soon enough Lady Chiltern gets Sir Robert alone and spills her plan – she’s blackmailing him with information she has about the Suez Canal and . . . well . . . this part’s not very interesting. Frankly, she could be blackmailing him about cats for all it really matters – the point is, she’s got dirt on him, and in order for him to stay pure, both in the eyes of his fellow members of the House as well as in the eyes of his loving wife, he’ll do as she says. With an arched brow and knowing look she’s off to let Sir Robert chew on that.
Wilde was a master at pointing out that the idle rich have everything they need, yet still manage to muck it up. Filled with all the plummy lush language you come to expect from Wilde characters, Husband plays, at times with all the trials of a great Shakespearean Tragedy. All the big tormentors are there: love, honor, deceit, trust, duplicity. As Lord Goring says “No one is incapable of doing a foolish thing . . . No one is incapable of doing a wrong thing”. There’s plotting, double plotting, entrapment, hiding behind doors, listening at keyholes and filching private letters.
Now, before you go rending your garments, it’s not all sturm und drang. There’s quite a lot of folly in this play as well; Mabel Chiltern (Leigh Poulos) is, by her own admission, “the most ornamental person in London” and spends most of her days turning down marriage proposals from unseen suitor Tommy Trafford who always proposes on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the Season. (Tommy however, is not the Ideal Husband of the title).
There’s also Lady Markby (Colleen Conroy), a chatterbox who talks a lot and says nothing but seems to enjoy having tea at the various homes of her neighbors. Mix it all together and you’ve got a fantastically entertaining two hours that brings moments of unbridled arguing, heartwrenching declarations of love, and enough sixties hits to keep your toes tapping through each scene change. Wrap it all up with a shiny bow in the final scene and you’ve got Wilde at his best.
Without a doubt this cast is absolutely fantastic; they come together terrifically as an ensemble, but can each hold their own when their dramatic turn arrives. Bridgeforth’s Mrs. Cheveley commands her scenes and never waivers; she has you right where she wants you the entire time. Balancing her is the wonderful Krokey who imbues Lady Chiltern with all the poise and elegance of a true English Lady while still managing to bring out the layers of a woman who is guilty of the sin of trusting too deeply. Krokey brings out Chiltern’s vulnerabilities without showing them as weaknesses. Mathers’ Goring is, of course, the flower in the buttonhole of this play; he knows exactly where to take this character without pushing it too far — making Goring the delightful dandy that he was meant to be. In another actors hands this role might have gone over the top, but Mathers takes the audience by the arm and winks at us. He’s a joy to watch. Aguirre’s Sir Robert ties the ensemble together; he flawlessly moves between all these counterpoints and brings the anguish of his character to a level of genuine emotion.
Tied all together with great costumes designed by Kerry Gibbons this update sings. Without a doubt, this production of Wilde’s work is Ideal. Get there while you still can.
~~~An Ideal Husband Written by Oscar Wilde Director by Meghan Formwalt Produced by Big Rodent Wings Theater 154 Christopher Street (Basement) New York, NY 10014 PERFORMANCES July 15 – 24th Wed at 8:00pm Thu at 8:00pm Fri at 8:00pm Sat at 8:00pm Sun at 3:00pm TICKETS $20.00 Order tickets online