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THEATER REVIEW : Title Is Obscure, but Play Is Wilde at Heart : Master playwright's 'An Ideal Husband' is rarely performed. But it proves to be another work of great, intelligent fun.

May 19, 1994|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A woman appears from seemingly nowhere to blackmail a prominent politician--if hedoesn't come through, she will ruin his career. It couldn't happen in this country, of course, but the story was believable in 1895 London when Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" premiered to great acclaim.

The play has been relatively lost to history. Wilde was too prolific: Soon after "Husband" opened, so did the playwright's overwhelmingly successful "The Importance of Being Earnest." While "Earnest" is a theatrical staple (a Spanish-language version is set for Ventura later this year), "An Ideal Husband" is seldom performed. And so, the current Santa Paula Theater Center production would be worth a visit from the theatrically curious, even if it weren't as good as it is.

But the play is great, intelligent fun, and this production is just fine. Wilde's epigrams fly through the air at dazzling speed, the story is nothing if not current--even if the setting is pure English drawing room--and much of the acting here is up to the demands of the writing.

Sir Robert Chiltern (Gary Best) is a wealthy young man with a promising future in Parliament, blessed with an adoring wife (Anne Howard-Abeles). Debonair wastrel Viscount Goring (John A. Maraffi) maintains a flirtatious relationship with Chiltern's kittenish younger sister, Mabel (Stephanie Lowe).

As the play begins, a party at the Chiltern mansion is interrupted by the unexpected presence of Mrs. Cheverly (Rachel Babcock), just in from Vienna. An old acquaintance of Chiltern's wife with a surprise relationship to one of the other characters, she plans to blackmail the politician into endorsing a fraudulent land deal.

Mrs. Cheverly is a wonderful character, one of Wilde's most richly drawn. She's thoroughly rotten and, although it's not without cause, her evilness exists mainly for its own sake. Like Shakespeare's Richard III, Mrs. Cheverly seems to delight in her malicious scheming. Sir Robert and his doting wife are, by comparison (and probably intentionally), rather starched characters, played convincingly under David Ralphe's direction. More fun, again intentionally, are ne'er-do-well Goring and the not overly bright Mabel Chiltern.

The acting is at least good enough, certainly in the main roles, and the cast's inability to affect uniformly convincing accents isn't a hindrance; in fact, a tendency toward mid-Atlantic inflections makes Wilde's dialogue more understandable.

Details

* WHAT: "An Ideal Husband."

* WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., through June 19.

* WHERE: Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. 7th St.

* HOW MUCH: Thursday and Friday evenings and Sunday afternoon: $10 general admission, $7.50 students and senior citizens. Saturday evening: $12.50 general admission, $10 for students and senior citizens.

* FYI: For reservations or information, call 525-4645.

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