San Diego Oscar Wilde loved to spin platitudes on their ear. "Fathers should be neither seen nor heard," says Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband. "My Reginald is quite hopelessly faultless," says Mrs. Marchmont. "There is not the smallest element of excitement in knowing him."
Wilde built Husband (1895) on another inversion: instead of a man putting a woman on a pedestal, Lady Gertrude Chiltern holds her mate, Sir Robert, to the highest standard. "To the world, to myself," she tells the rising British politician renowned for courageous stances, "you have been an ideal always." And if he makes one false move, she more than suggests, she'll dump him.
But, and it's a relief to hear his statue's nicked, Sir Robert has a past. He built his considerable fortune by selling a state secret. The only proof: a letter he's almost certain was destroyed. Ever since the insider trading incident, he can do no wrong, as a husband, as a statesman, as a philanthropist. But the inch of uncertainty makes him a Dorian Gray: a glittering public mask conceals a career- and marriage-ending crime. Robert lives each minute in fear of public exposure.
Husband reflects a historical moment: the publication of personal scandals. They "used to lend charm, or at least interest, to a man," says Mrs. Cheveley. "Now they crush him." The cause? "A mania for morality, in which everyone has to pose as a paragon of purity." Façades rule among the upper classes, and reputations become as treasured as wealth. Husband premiered 102 years ago, when the tabloids began to turn scandals into entertainment packages. Once publishers realized that serialized public humiliation sold newspapers, they exploited it. And as Wilde penned the play, he had been blackmailed and was headed for three court trials that would do everything to him that Sir Robert feared.
Watching An Ideal Husband, currently at Lamb's Players, is like attending a Victorian masked ball and wondering who's beneath the "hopelessly faultless" countenances. Mrs. Cheveley, an interloper who blackmails Sir Robert with the letter, wears a literal mask: grotesque amounts of makeup and heliotrope gowns (Deborah Gilmour Smyth makes her believable but with apt smidgens of melodramatic villainy). And when her mask falls away, Wilde writes in a stage direction, like Dorian Gray's portrait Cheveley "is, for the moment, dreadful to look at."
Director Kerry Meads has fun with Wilde's ongoing masquerade. She cast Steve Gunderson as Lady Markby, a kind but dense aristocrat. Gunderson's entrance prompts a double-take. Clothed in Jeanne Reith's sumptuous, embroidered silks -- and a hat with enough feathers for an aviary -- he seems a she, at first. Then whispers of recognition ripple through the audience, then laughter. From then on, the audience sees double: Lady Markby and the male actor playing her.
Gunderson becomes an emblem of Wilde's inversions. The rest of the always enjoyable, elegant-looking production, however, could be funnier and more serious. In Act One, a tour de force party scene in which Wilde paints and lambastes polite society, guests at the Chilterns talk stately prose but make bizarre, often subversive comments ("Now that the House of Commons is trying to become useful," says Lady Markby, "it does a great deal of harm"). Far too many jokes get thrown away in Lamb's opening scene, which sets the play's seriocomical tone. It breaks the niceties of acting, but the cast could play the lines as funny lines, and not just out, but up, so people in the back row could appreciate them.
"Are you an optimist or a pessimist?" Sir Robert asks Mrs. Cheveley when first they meet. "Those seem to be the only two fashionable religions left to us nowadays." Robert Smyth's performance as Sir Robert, one of his best in years, combines both. He moves with unstudied ease, his public voice a model of assurance. When Cheveley blackmails him, Smyth doesn't collapse (Sir Robert has many of the high qualities his wife ascribes to him). But his mask, which up to now we didn't know he wore, begins to show.
Lord Caversham (a crotchety David Cochran Heath) tells his son, Lord Goring, he never knows when he's being serious. The same was said of Oscar Wilde, who confessed that Lord Goring, the "flawless dandy," contains "a great deal of the real Oscar." Some say an idealized portrait. Rick D. Meads matches the playwright's sculpted one-liners with well-spoken deliveries and precise timing and delights in having -- possibly one of Wilde's most autobiographical utterances -- "one of those terribly weak natures that are not susceptible to influence."
An Ideal Husband, by Oscar Wilde
Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado
Directed by Kerry Meads; cast: Rick D. Meads, Robert Smyth, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Glynn Beddington, Colleen Kollar Smith, David Cochran Heath, Steve Gunderson, Patrick Duffy, Season Duffy, Jillian Frost, Jon Lorenz; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Nate Parde
Playing through November 18; Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-437-0600.