The vast majority of theatergoers, if they have ever seen a play by Oscar Wilde, have probably seen The Importance of Being Earnest, one of the funniest plays ever written. One might be excused for assuming that all of his plays are like that. But one would be wrong.
Take, for example, An Ideal Husband, now playing at Marin Shakespeare Co. in San Rafael. Crisply directed by Robert Currier, Wilde’s cleverly plotted social critique is riveting, packed with philosophical questions and imbued with an escalating sense of tension that is balanced beautifully by the frequently funny remarks of its characters. A fusion of drawing-room comedy and political thriller, the play was thought by many to be superior to Earnest, and yet it’s rarely performed.
Thankfully, Marin Shakespeare— celebrating its 25th anniversary this season—has a reputation for resurrecting forgotten gems. Though An Ideal Husband will likely be eclipsed in audience attendance by the far-better-known Romeo and Juliet (a lovely staging of which runs in repertory through the end of September), Wilde’s lesser-known play is so brilliantly acted it deserves full houses.
Sir Robert Chiltern (Nick Sholley) is a well-regarded politician, known far and wide for his unflinchingly decency, traits that first attracted his devoted wife, the equally unwavering Lady Chiltern (Marcia Pizzo).
During a party at the Chilterns’, attended by Sir Robert’s hedonistic bachelor friend Lord Goring (Darren Bridgett), Sir Robert is stunned when a beautiful visitor to London, the mysterious Mrs. Cheverley (Cat Thompson), tells him she has a letter proving he once sold secret government information for money. If he does not agree to make a speech in the House of Commons supporting a fraudulent scheme to build a canal in Argentina (a scheme that will add to Mrs. Cherverley’s fortune), she will publish the letter, destroying Sir Robert’s reputation.
Unfolding over the next 24 hours, the play is crammed with twists and turns, surprises, revelations, misunderstandings and thwarted plans. But unlike Earnest, in which all the plotting adds up to little more than a good time, An Ideal Husband has plenty to say about how we judge our leaders, our neighbors and ourselves.
The cast is sensational, dropping delicious one-liners while moving the taught tale through to its deeply satisfying conclusion.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½