It's tempting to focus on Oscar Wilde's wit in An Ideal Husband, his next-to-last play, and dwell on the repartee that served famously as his primary dramatic tool. Make no mistake: This comedy is replete with epigrams, puns, and just plain funny lines. But Berkeley Rep director Stephen Wadsworth — with outstanding assistance from designers Kevin Rupnik (scenery), Candice Donnelly (costumes), and Jennifer Norris (lighting) — has chosen to emphasize image and utilize nonverbal expression to deepen the play, explore its emotional textures, and soften some of Wilde's brittle edges. The results are mesmerizing.
An Ideal Husband, set in the upper echelons of late-19th-century London society (the play was first produced in January of 1895), opens with a dinner party given by Sir Robert (Mark Capri) and Lady Gertrude (Lise Bruneau) Chiltern. Guests are announced and ushered into the Chilterns' elegant drawing room, including Sir Robert's young unmarried sister, Mabel (Julie Eccles), and his friend, the eligible bachelor Viscount Arthur Goring (Jeff Woodman). The party proceeds without a hitch until the elderly Lady Markby (Barbara Oliver) arrives with the exotic Mrs. Cheveley (Michelle Morain) — once known to Lady Gertrude at school — in tow.
Mrs. Cheveley (later characterized by Goring as “a genius in the daytime and a beauty at night”) is quite the mysterious stranger, a dangerous woman in black who soon makes her purpose known. She takes Chiltern, a rising politician, aside and entreats him to help her pull off a speculative swindle. When he refuses, she plays her trump card: She possesses a letter proving that the source of Chiltern's wealth and position is a long-concealed racket in which he, as a young chap, sold a state secret to a powerful businessman, thus ensuring his own future. Chiltern, who has made his reputation as a man of scrupulous honor, begs her to reconsider. Not only will he face public ruin, he'll lose the love of the wife who idolizes him. Of course, Mrs. Cheveley refuses in a deliciously nasty way. She then sets her cap for Goring, to whom she was once briefly engaged.
As the action plays out (don't worry, everything is tidied up by the end), characters tussle with questions of morality, the societal roles of men and women, the nature of truth, and the absurdity of the social scene.
The performances are uniformly gracious and radiant, especially Morain as the peerlessly elegant and fabulously evil Mrs. Cheveley. Bruneau shines as Lady Gertrude, Eccles charms as Miss Mabel, and Charles Dean impresses as a wonderfully proper Earl of Cavisham. As Goring, Woodman is exuberant and redeemingly intelligent (it is he who unties the various conundrums of plot); likewise Capri as Chiltern, who seems to crumble before our very eyes.
Which brings us back to Wadsworth's arresting use of image. Here's a small sampling:
The set itself: burnished parquet floors, neoclassic friezes atop elegant high-ceilinged walls, and — dead center — an imposing portrait of an unidentified horseman and his mount. The stage is soon populated with beautifully dressed guests, who arrange themselves as if to create living paintings.
Lady Chiltern is introduced to Mrs. Cheveley. The pair stand downstage, facing each other across the room. The scene seems to halt as each woman takes measure of the other, a dramatic tableau that spells out the play's central conflict.
Robert Chiltern, desperate to cover his ignoble past, circles the room with Lord Goring, a loyal friend determined to help him solve his problem. The two men look like goldfish swimming round a bowl.
Lord Goring, boxed in by the wicked Mrs. Cheveley, sits up all night and ponders his fate. The walls shift gently, carefully, and the liveried stage crew (as well as Gertrude) replace Goring's rooms with the Chilterns' drawing room. The morning light comes up on Lord Goring, who hasn't moved, as he waits to talk to either Chiltern.
Wadsworth's interest in visual effects, combined with his penchant for lingering with an image or a character and allowing music to enhance the subtext, works as a surprisingly effective counterbalance to Wilde's rapid-fire dialogue. Rather than simple period comedy, what we get is nothing less than a rich and complete experience of what it means to be human.
Performances, not images, are the key ingredient in Marlane Meyer's Kingfish (directed by Jonathan Moscone at the Magic), a play that takes its own quirkiness seriously and seems to suggest that oddness alone can carry the day. It can't.
In brief, Wylie (Robert Ernst) returns home after being mugged and relates his troubles to his disapproving dog, Kingfish, represented by a box on legs with a rope for a tail, and whose alter ego (Will Oberholtzer) sits upstage in a tuxedo and barks out comments. Wylie's attacker is Hal (Sean San Jose Blackman), a hustler who stole his camera but can't sell it. Hal returns it to Wylie for a price, and Wylie oddly suggests that Hal and his CIA agent lover, Finney (John Balma), move in with him and become his “family.”
Kingfish, who enjoys quiet evenings at home with Wylie watching Masterpiece Theatre, feels displaced and takes an instant dislike to Hal. He also forms an immediate attachment to Finney, who soon takes over the dog's care. When Wylie ends up in an alcoholic rehab hospital, Hal takes up with Wanda (Kristi Scott), a nurse of sorts who's been helping Ed (Rod Knapp) train Kingfish.
All is dysfunctional chaos as the playwright mischievously reorders the fictional reality she's taken such pains to establish. Kingfish, it is pointed out from time to time, is not a dog but a wooden box. And Wylie rages at Hal, “This is my house. People can't come in here and smash a beer bottle against the upstage wall.”
As Wylie, Robert Ernst is deliciously sardonic, and the rest of the ensemble summons considerable originality and enthusiasm. Best by far, though, is Oberholtzer, whose eloquent barks and subtle displays of attitude are hilarious.
Meyer wants to explore the Big Questions — such as the nature of good and evil, the limits of reality, the ways we perceive the world — but she only skirts them, preferring to let one-liners take over, like an indulgent dog owner who is much too delighted with her pet.
An Ideal Husband runs through Sunday, July 16, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre; call (510) 845-4700. Kingfish runs through Sun, June 25, at Magic Theatre in S.F.; call 441-8822.