Recent headlines aside, political scandal is nothing new. The Larry Craigs and Eliot Spitzers of the world may provide juicy copy for today’s news, but no one wrote about the divide between public morality and private conduct with the wit, style and insight of Oscar Wilde, whose “An Ideal Husband” opened Saturday at the California Shakespeare Theater.
The 1895 comedy isn’t as often produced as the playwright’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but many critics — including George Bernard Shaw — have considered it Wilde’s finest work. Jonathan Moscone, Cal Shakes’ artistic director, must think so too, because he’s given it a vibrant, thought-provoking and very funny new production.
At the center of the drama is the ambitious Sir Robert Chiltern (Michael Butler), whose sterling reputation on London’s political scene conceals a dark secret: early in his career, he traded insider government information for significant personal gain.
If society holds Chiltern in high esteem, his wife, the naïve Gertrude (Julie Eccles), worships him like a god, or the “ideal husband” of the title.
Wealth, position, taste and morality: Robert and Gertrude appear to have it all. But Wilde quickly dispenses with the illusion.
The blithe veneer of the opening scene — a party at the Chilterns’, inhabiated by upper-crust types trading bon mots in various stages of inebriation and ennui — is shattered when an old acquaintance, Mrs. Cheveley (Stacy Ross), arrives to blackmail Robert.
She offers him a deal. She’ll keep his secret if he’ll lend his support to a public deal he knows to be corrupt. If he refuses, she’ll destroy his name and poison his relationship with Gertrude.
The principal parts are well cast. Butler and Eccles bring just the right blend of upright reserve and emotional depth to their roles, and Ross is both menacing and wonderfully magnetic as the venomous Mrs. Cheveley.
Elijah Alexander brings an appealing physicality and keen comic timing to the role of Lord Goring, the Chilterns’ close family friend (as a stand-in for Wilde, the foppish Goring gets many of the play’s best lines.) Sarah Nealis exudes charm as Robert’s sister, Mabel, and L. Peter Callender is a delight as the curmudgeonly Lord Caversham.
The rest of the cast is just as strong, with Delia Macdougall, Nancy Carlin, Joan Mankin, Danny Scheie and Ted Barker adding wit and color in supporting roles as society dames and servants.
Moscone and his design team — Annie Smart (sets), Meg Neville (costumes), Scott Zielinski (lighting) and Jeff Mockus (sound) — give the production an opulent Victorian setting of rich interiors, flowing gowns and glittering gems.
And Wilde’s script, with one brilliant line after another, shines like a diamond. Moscone’s insightful staging includes a wealth of smart touches, including a wry twist on the play’s final scene. Yet the director never lets us forget the playwright’s central premise: that politics is a down and dirty business, regardless of the era.
IF YOU GO
An Ideal Husband
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, Highway 24 at Gateway Boulevard exit, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays; closes July 27
Tickets: $32 to $62
Contact: (510) 548-9666 or www.calshakes.org