At a glance it seems natural that California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone would follow up the success of his production of George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman last season by directing Oscar Wilde's nearly contemporary An Ideal Husband. But the juxtaposition of the two plays only highlights the differences between the two Irish wits that became enshrined in the English literary canon.
An Ideal Husband has more substance than Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which debuted the same year in 1895 and which Moscone directed at Cal Shakes in 2004. Both satirize English social standards, but Earnest only regarding bachelor eligibility, whereas Husband touches on the moral hypocrisy demanded in political life, a subject likely to strike home now more than ever. But Wilde's social satire is merely a comradely nudge where Shaw's is more like a lunge with a rapier. Superman is a play of ideas that's also very funny, whereas Husband is a series of droll aphorisms that touch upon some interesting points.
Nowhere is the contrast more glaring than in Husband's climactic speech about how a man's concerns are more serious than a woman's. Certainly the women in the play consistently outshine the men, and there's a lot of delightful banter throughout the play about the difference between the sexes, but it's a speech you'd never find in Shaw unless followed by a lengthy verbal drubbing. If you took nothing else away from Man and Superman, you would have gathered that women are generally the superior sex.
The speech is handled nicely in Moscone's staging. When Julie Eccles repeats it, it's through gritted teeth, as if she were trying to swallow something sour. She plays Gertrude, the demanding Mrs. Chiltern, whose Parliament member husband is being blackmailed for a past indiscretion he can't even confess to her, because she equates love with worship and demands that he be entirely without blemish.
Gertrude is so prim and proper that at first Eccles almost blends into the background. That's particularly easy to do in Annie Smart's stately set, dominated by an immense paneled reproduction of a Francois Boucher painting of lounging lovers by a pond. But once her husband Robert is compromised and she feelingly asserts her inflexible point of view, Gertrude is so formidable that it's tempting to believe that she must also be right, particularly as Michael Butler's befuddled Robert seems thoroughly outmatched.
Center REP artistic director Butler (husband of outgoing San Jose Rep artistic director Timothy Near, who's directing the next show at Cal Shakes) feels somewhat miscast. His Robert is a pleasant enough chap, but so mild-mannered as to seem inscrutable, so it's hard to credit him as a political powerhouse. On the other end of the scale, Robert's pre-intermission marital face-off would be far more effective it were not so melodramatically overstated.
But the fact is that it feels churlish to quibble over such things when overall this is a delightful production of a diverting comedy. Stacy Ross is superb as the villainous Mrs. Cheveley, entering with a swagger and savoring her witticisms with relish, turning on a dime from pointed flirtation to fury to collecting herself with priceless aplomb. As the dandy Lord Goring, Elijah Alexander plays up his function as a stand-in for Wilde, delivering most of his many quips directly to the audience to drive them home. Dedicated to an idle life, his Goring is a curiously melancholy wit who seems to feel the Chiltons' plight more deeply than they do themselves. His frustration is hilarious as the couple takes one wrong turn after another.
Meg Neville's costumes are bright and playful, particularly Cheveley's slinky wraps, Goring's flamboyant attire, and decadent getups for Robert's sister Mabel. Sarah Nealis takes a while to warm up as Mabel, at first seeming just another giggly flibbertigibbet, but she becomes funnier as Mabel grows more pettish. Eccles made a strong impression as Mabel in Stephen Wadsworth's 1995 Berkeley Rep production, and it's hard to forget that when the sisters-in-law are side by side.
What really makes the show work so marvelously is the care taken in small roles as well as the big ones. Danny Scheie is tremendously amusing as a buffoonish vicomte and smirking butler, Joan Mankin commands attention as a doddering dowager, and Nancy Carlin and Delia MacDougall steal the show in one hilarious scene as bored society wives. L. Peter Callender's smallest mannerisms as Goring's stuffy father are priceless.
The energy lags in the longer one-on-one conversations, letting a serendipitous swooping hawk steal the show at the outdoor amphitheater opening night. Moscone adds some intriguing touches that accentuate the political content of the play — more, in fact, than is actually present in the script. Even so, the way characters vamp for the paparazzi when they enter a party is hysterical. This Husband may not be perfect, but it's well worth loving, flaws and all.