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STAGE REVIEW

A marriage of Wilde’s wit and weighty issues

Lewis D. Wheeler (left), Carrie Ann Quinn, and Brendan Powers play multiple roles in Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.’’ Lewis D. Wheeler (left), Carrie Ann Quinn, and Brendan Powers play multiple roles in Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.’’ (Gary Ng)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / August 19, 2010

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GLOUCESTER — Though Oscar Wilde would probably shudder to hear it, the contemporary TV sitcom owes a considerable debt to him.

The use of dialogue as a delivery system for one-liners, the skin-deep characterizations, and the set-up/joke, set-up/joke rhythms of shows like “How I Met Your Mother’’ and “Hot in Cleveland’’ follow a comedic template established, or at least perfected, by Wilde.

The difference (apart from, you know, all those IQ points) is that Wilde delivered epigrams rather than mere punch lines, and his lapidary pen ensured that those glittering gems were seldom more than a beat or two away.

That was true not just in “The Importance of Being Earnest,’’ his famous comedy of manners, but also in the less well-known “An Ideal Husband,’’ where Wilde turned his wit toward a consideration of such weighty matters as the price of ambition and the contradictions between public life and private morality. (George Bernard Shaw, for one, considered “Husband’’ the finer work.)

Under the sure-handed direction of Karen MacDonald, with an adaptation by Daniel Morris, a handsome set by Julia Noulin-Merat, and elegant period costumes by Molly Trainer, Gloucester Stage Company’s new production of “An Ideal Husband’’ is faithful to Wilde’s insouciant but penetrating spirit. MacDonald does not scant the play’s considerable humor, but she also conveys the equally considerable contemporary resonance that “Husband’’ possesses, for all its viscounts and earls and 19th-century dandyism.

“An Ideal Husband’’ premiered in 1895, an eventful time for the playwright, to put it mildly, as it was also the year when “Earnest’’ premiered and Wilde was put on trial, eventually being sentenced to prison for two years for engaging in “gross indecency.’’

The Gloucester Stage production of “Husband’’ begins creakily, burdened by some overly arch dialogue in its opening scenes, but it starts to gain velocity with the appearance of Angie Jepson as a silkily seductive schemer named Mrs. Cheveley. This unfair lady is blackmailing Sir Robert Chiltern (Brendan Powers), a veddy proper undersecretary for foreign affairs.

Mrs. Cheveley has a large financial interest in a shady deal that she is determined to protect. Not only does Sir Robert oppose the deal, but he is about to deliver a death blow by presenting a negative report before the House of Commons. Mrs. Cheveley insists that he withdraw the report and speak favorably about the deal; if he does not, she will ruin him by revealing a long-buried secret.

It seems that at the beginning of Sir Robert’s otherwise admirable career, he traded on insider information and laid the groundwork for his own fortune by urging a wealthy baron to buy shares in the Suez Canal three days before the British government announced its purchase of a large stake. “Suppose that when I leave this house I drive down to some newspaper office and give them this scandal and the proofs of it,’’ Mrs. Cheveley tells him. “Think of their loathsome joy, of the delight they would have in dragging you down, of the mud and mire they would plunge you in.’’ (Prophetic words, given what would soon happen to Wilde himself.)

Sir Robert dreads the loss of face, but what he dreads even more is the loss of the admiration, verging on hero worship, of his wife, Lady Chiltern (Carrie Ann Quinn). “How many men there are in modern life who would like to see their past burning to white ashes before them!’’ he exclaims late in the play. Add ed to this complicated domestic and political stew is a budding romance between Sir Robert’s independent-minded sister, Mabel (also played by Jepson), and Lord Goring (Lewis D. Wheeler), who once upon a time was engaged to Mrs. Cheveley, who once upon a time was a schoomate of Lady Chiltern.

MacDonald stages “Husband’’ at a brisk tempo that still leaves the audience time to keep the characters straight and absorb the playwright’s observations about the temptation toward corrupt self-dealing, the possibility of redemption, and the circuitous path of love. And, of course, to savor the essence of Wilde, who here tosses off such epigrams and witticisms as “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike’’ and “Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself . . . To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.’’

The production’s four actors acquit themselves ably, with passable British accents and dexterity in handling multiple parts (the men play minor female characters and the women play minor male characters). It is another impressive outing for Jepson, a fine young actress most recently seen as the housemaid in Stoneham Theatre’s production of “Gaslight.’’ Through movement, gesture, and vocal intonation, she finds ways to distinguish the rapacity of her Mrs. Cheveley from the avidity of her Mabel.

As Lady Chiltern, the conscience of “Husband,’’ Quinn manages to walk that fine line between idealistic and cloying. Powers brings to Sir Robert the fire I found lacking in his most recent Gloucester Stage performance (as the husband in Kelly Younger’s “Tender’’). Wheeler has many of Wilde’s best lines as Lord Goring, and he delivers them with a kind of droll brio.

Wilde retains an irresistible quotability. At one point in “An Ideal Husband,’’ a character complains: “In England people actually try to be brilliant at breakfast. That is dreadful of them!’’ Luckily for us, Oscar Wilde was brilliant 24 hours a day.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

AN IDEAL HUSBAND Play by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Daniel Morris

Directed by: Karen MacDonald. Sets, Julia Noulin-Merat. Costumes, Molly Trainer. Lights, Kenneth Helvig. Sound, David Remedios.

At: Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, through Aug. 29. Tickets: $37. 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.org