Sinners and saints

An Ideal Husband explores the line between public service and private folly

Tempting though it is, the stage critic will not leap into the fray of current presidential scandal to declare that Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, now being staged by Dallas Theater Center, is prophetic because it concerns a politician haunted by a misdeed he believed was long buried. The genius dandy's 1895 play isn't a tragedy. It's a plea for forgiveness that asks us to reconsider the notion that private transgressions cancel the good works of public service.

The concept that deification of leaders is a dangerous thing wasn't really that revolutionary when presented to an audience of turn-of-the-century Victorians, who had long tolerated naughtiness as long as it didn't poke out from underneath the rug. What's ironic is that the play, which opened as a huge box-office hit, quickly closed when Oscar Wilde's affair with Lord Alfred Douglas was revealed in a courtroom. The same audience that prided itself on intellectual adventurousness when confronted with a morally complex play wasn't so bold in attitude toward that play's author, who had been pissing people off for the better part of a decade with his flamboyant declarations on artistic freedom and social hypocrisy.

Indeed, the subsequent imprisonment, bankruptcy, and ostracism of Oscar Wilde had as much to do with the man's epigrammatic attacks on the mammoth Victorian facade as with his homosexuality, about which he'd been dropping clues so neon-bright they'd have blinded a pre-"out" Ellen. Nobody likes a smartass, and Wilde had been braying his outlandishly original witticisms in the direction of church, state, and high society for long enough. The fact that Wilde voluntarily wandered into the court that crushed him--he foolishly followed the advice of his lover to sue the latter's father for libel, thus allowing English magistrates their first shot at him--made his humiliation all the sweeter for his detractors. He blossomed in the spotlight, so let him feel its burn.

What's most revealing about An Ideal Husband is the unvarnished sympathy for human folly that rises from the typical Wildean maelstrom of devastating criticism on the wide chasm between what we say and what we feel. The politician at the center of the play is a wildly popular social reformer who committed a sin early in his career that might register a two on today's public-scandal meter. He tipped off a politically influential investor to upcoming canal construction legislation by the House of Commons, thereby securing personal wealth and political influence for himself.

It's not nearly as delicious as a compulsive sexual interest in young government workers (or an obsessive gay love affair, for that matter), but Wilde is far less interested in the sin than in its corrosive consequences for the politician, his career, and his almost cruelly idealistic wife, herself a stalwart political progressive. And for once in his career, the point he makes is uncloaked by ambiguity or ironic wit--electing officials and canonizing saints are very different processes that require very different criteria.

As staged by Jonathan Moscone, the Dallas Theater Center's assistant director, An Ideal Husband is a pleasurable but slightly schizophrenic affair. The play's moral seriousness and its farcical elements of stolen letters, confused identities, and daring rescues by seduction aren't very well incorporated into the script, which--while containing timeless Wildean wisdom such as "To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance"--is widely considered one of the author's lesser theatrical endeavors. Individually, the performances range from eloquent to adroitly lunatic. Both make for fine stage fare, but together in the same scene, they give the feeling that the actors are performing in different productions, or at least, different interpretations of the same show. Read the script yourself, and you can feel Moscone's pain in trying to gauge just how antic the shenanigans, interspersed with pauses for deeply serious contemplation on money and power, should be.

The charmed life of beloved do-gooder Robert Chiltern (Todd Waite) and his activist wife, Gertrude (Sally Nystuen Vahle), is shattered when the viperish Mrs. Chevely (Stephanie Roth Haberle), a former schoolmate of Gertrude's, visits them at a party and blackmails Robert with the letter he wrote two decades ago that "sold" the canal tip-off to his benefactor. Robert must either reverse his opposition on the Parliament floor to more canal construction, in which Mrs. Chevely has an investment, or face public exposure of how he traded on insider political information.

It's difficult to say who holds Robert in higher esteem, a grateful English public or his rigorous wife, who believes so deeply in the man's purity of intention that a revelation of dishonor transforms him into a less than ideal husband--in other words, not the man she loves. Robert enlists the aid of his best friend, a hedonistic layabout named Lord Goring (Sean Haberle, whose character is a virtual Wilde stand-in) who was once engaged to the treacherous Mrs. Chevely and who hatches a scheme to get the letter back.

The marriage between Robert and Gertrude is the molten core of An Ideal Husband, the arena in which issues of responsibility and compromise are played. Todd Waite, a Canadian actor who has been blandly competent in his last two DTC productions, infuses that mediocrity with just enough befuddled affability to come across as a politician with wide popular appeal. As written, the character of Gertrude is slightly cartoonish. Her devotion to her husband's reputation borders on pathology, especially in the emotional early scenes, but Sally Nystuen Vahle manages to color the role vibrantly yet still stay in the lines. Her fierce standards of spousal excellence are the play's dramatic fulcrum, after all.

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