Thursday, November 20, 2008

Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" at the Gamm

In the world according to Oscar Wilde, life is a catalogue of afflictions: power corrupts, education curdles, wealth distracts, charm spoils, marriage entraps, facts disappoint, politics bore. In short, all the world’s a plague. This position, ostensibly harrowing, is actually comic, in the sense that misfortune distributed universally and indiscriminately loses its ability to shock or injure; tragedy is what happens when your life is worse than your neighbor’s. This worldview may also feel a little Socialist—which Wilde was, and which was anyway a less scurrilous thing to be accused of in the 1890s than it is today—in its faith that only a level playing field will allow for the most artful exercise of an individual’s freedom. Appropriately, in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband there is no calamity worse than privilege. The best that can be said about the show (at the Gamm Theatre through December 7th) is that, through it, Wilde was able to develop one of his favorite themes—the resilience of authenticity in a world clotted with fraudulence. The worst is that the play can feel not just rigged but contrived, even authoritarian—which is the antithesis of Wilde’s personal and political ideals--because it is about moral decision but plotted to circumvent moments of real consequence. The challenge for any cast performing it is to somehow communicate the very moral seriousness that Wilde ironizes, and to make Wilde’s irony seem not just freshly discovered but appropriate to the moment; his characters have to come by it honestly and express it provisionally, or the audience will feel not so much like co-conspirators in a clever subversion as subjects to an ideologue. We must sense the play’s dark undercurrent of grief and disillusionment even as we revel in the froth and babble of its humor.

Sir Robert Chiltern (Jim O’Brien) seems to have it made—he’s in parliament and pegged for great success, admired and influential beyond his dreams, and married to the loving Lady Chiltern (Casey Seymour Kim)—but there’s a problem with his ideal life: it’s built on a lie. More than twenty years before the start of the play, he had sold a state secret to a speculator; the fortune he made from this deal is the fragile foundation of his entire political career since. The funny thing about the past is that, though it never disappears, neither does it stay the same. For Chiltern, the callow behavior of his early years in politics has been justified and mollified by the good he has done since then: it has been transformed from a pitfall to a step up. An Ideal Husband begins with Chiltern being shown the quick way back down. Mrs. Cheveley (the long-limbed and caramel-voiced Jeanine Kane), a socialite-cum-adventuress living in Vienna, has returned to London with only a hook and some bait. She wants Chiltern to suppress a Cabinet report on the poor prospects of an Argentine canal so that the government will buy shares in it and her heavy investment will turn into considerable profit; should he refuse, she explains, she is prepared to go public with a note proving his involvement in the scheme of two decades before. Chiltern cannot suppress the canal report—his career in Parliament has been a model of probity and honor—but he cannot issue it either: to do so would invite public disgrace and private collapse. He would lose the public’s trust, and, even worse, his wife’s adoration. What’s an ideal husband to do?

In this case, he turns to Lord Goring (Tony Estrella), his unemployed and unambitious friend. Thank goodness for the idle rich, who, untroubled by the demands of real jobs, are available for freelance work. Goring is good-hearted and eloquent, so we don’t hold his aimlessness against him; in fact, his indifference to the blandishments of professional or societal advancement seems to have preserved his moral sensitivity. He advises Lord Chiltern to confess his indiscretion to his wife before she finds out about it from Mrs. Cheveley, and admonishes Lady Chiltern to forgive her husband’s fallibility; she must surrender her claim to an ideal and learn to love the real. (Goring, it has been noted, bears a striking resemblance to Wilde himself: both men had accomplished fathers; both had a sartorial obsession; both claimed to be two years younger than they really were; and both believed that the only virtue worth practicing is honesty. That Goring is the show’s hero, then, should not come as a surprise.) Meanwhile, Goring devises a plan to get the damning letter from Mrs. Cheveley, which would obviate the need for confession and forgiveness. There are a number of misunderstandings and a long scene in which Goring must prevent guests in his house from discovering each other behind closed doors, but in the end, and with true comedic pessimism, one marriage is restored and another begun.

An Ideal Husband is a pessimistic comedy, after all, because it concludes that the world is unchangeable; the only way to survive it is to change ourselves. For Wilde, the apotheosis of human development is the ironist, who engages in the world but recognizes the ridiculousness of his or her own commitments and pursuits. This is what both Sir and Lady Chiltern become: by the end of the play they are sadder and wiser, thus happier and more reckless. The triumph of this production is that, in spite of Wilde’s conclusion, the play does not feel detached or aloof; indeed, the performers, particularly Casey Seymour Kim as Lady Chiltern, ensure that the show is alive to, and in touch with, the real world. Kim navigates its difficult moral and emotional landscape nimbly; with her open face and a body that wheels orbitlessly about the stage—she is a tireless physical actor—she is, as she ought to be, simultaneously tragic and comic. Her performance continually reminds us that, in another play, the Chilterns’ dilemma would end very differently. What I mean is that, in some way, her performance exemplifies the very humanist irony that is Wilde’s prescription for the world’s maladies. Tony Estrella and Jim O’Brien are funny—Estrella, in particular, has a great time playing Goring’s loving and exasperated relationship with his father—but their performances are not selfless and utterly knowing, as I think Kim’s is. It does not pretend that the world is not a serious place; but it also does not pretend that we can do anything about it other than laugh.

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