Oscar Wilde's plays are so well-larded with rich lines, so well-stuffed with bon mots and so well-basted with sly, amusing observations that even a less-than-brilliant production of his work will offer a pleasurable theatrical meal. Such a one is currently being served at Deep Dish Theater, which is presenting An Ideal Husband, directed by Tony Lea, through March 6.
Unlike many of today's politicians, Sir Robert Chiltern's dirty secret originated in the past. Ever since his one wrong act, which allowed him to live well, enter politics and marry a woman who thought he was ideal in every way, he has been scrupulously upright and has risen rapidly in the British government of the 1890s. He himself has almost forgotten the slimy deed that jettisoned him to power. But evidence of it has slipped into the pretty little blackmailing hand of Mrs. Cheveley, who plans to force Sir Robert to support a scheme in which she stands to make a great deal of money, while others lose theirs. Sir Robert panics, because if his secret comes out he will lose not only the public trust but the love of his adored wife, Gertrude, who sees no gray area whatsoever between right and wrong. Fortunately, the industrious Sir Robert's best friend is "the idlest man in London," Lord Goring, a confirmed bachelor who turns out to have both a heart and a brain under his fashionable exterior and manages to save the day through cunning and care. He is like the play itself, nutritious under its froth—and he has most of the best lines.
Sadly, Eric Swenson doesn't deliver them with the knowing zest that can make Wilde so delightful. He's a little too nice where he should be naughty. Except for Mrs. Cheveley, charmingly played by Dorothy Recasner Brown, and the Earl of Caversham—Jordan Smith, gruff and resplendent in a blue sash—the cast lacks the snap and effervescence one associates with Wilde. Lea directs for a minimum of tension. There are no highs and lows; all is on an even keel. Since watching Wilde ought to be like drinking almost too much Champagne, this is not a good thing.
No one is passionate, and again, except for Mrs. Cheveley, no one is sexy, so it is a stretch to locate the characters' motivations. Miss Mabel Chiltern (pretty Summer Stevens) is so badly dressed and made-up that it is almost incomprehensible that she would attract the fastidious Lord Goring, despite their delightful flirtatious badinage. Poor Lady Chiltern (Donna Shannon) doesn't get the togs worthy of a brilliant modern woman, either, and you wonder what keeps Sir Robert (John Paul Middlesworth) in her thrall.
Other than that aberration, the production's design elements are strong. As usual, Deep Dish has made more than seems possible out of its tiny space. Set designer Eric Davis has done an excellent job creating three effective sets for the four acts. This is a valiant attempt at a marvelous play, and it gets some of the laughs it deserves—but you wish the team had injected more bubbles.