You don't need me to tell you that The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the great theatrical pieces of all time, a classic of its period that works even when not performed by a great cast, similar to Sheridan's School for Scandal a century earlier. But last night we saw Oscar Wilde's Ideal Husband at the Shakespeare Theatre here in D.C. and much to my surprise, although it shouldn't have been, it was an absolute delight.
I should remember by now not to trust Washington Post reviews of anything; I used to limit my avoidance to movie reviews but their drama critic found this production tedious or boring or whatever. It was none of the above. First of all, Wilde's great lines--or bon mots--are almost as classic as in The Importance. The man was a theatrical genius--he could make a play work with a very simple plot with hardly any interesting complications but absolutely fantastic dialogue and killer lines.
I do need to remember that sometimes people put these plays down because they can't cut through the Brit accents. Here I don't think the accents--put on mostly by Americans--were especially thick. In fact, all the players were so good that I have trouble recollecting anything special about what turned out to be a truly fine ensemble. Even company veterans such as David Sabin and Floyd King contributed fine performances that did not break the effect of the ensemble production. There are often several layers of meaning in Wilde's epigrams.
You think you perceive what he's getting at but then another layer kicks in--and then there may be a double reverse, where he has trapped you in a logical snare that turns in on itself. I think what I enjoyed the most was that there is a whole lot of stage play concerning purloined letters but aside from some fun in one scene in particular--although not in any way the equal of the screen scene in School for Scandal--the play ends up by making the letter thefts almost inconsequential, which is all to the better.
Wilde, of course, falls into a category with Swift and Shaw, the Irishman who could most deliciously satirize the English. Since his several successful plays culminated in this one, followed by The Importance, his demise after his imbroglio over his gay relationships is all the sadder, in that he might have produced even more marvelous delightful theatrical experiences.