Eighteen-ninety-five was a busy year for Oscar Wilde. His comedy An Ideal Husband opened in January and then, unbelievably, only a month later, The Importance of Being Earnest premiered. And by May, Wilde would be in jail on charges of "gross indecency."
Of the many reasons to mourn Wilde's imprisonment, and his death five years later, one of the saddest is "what could have been" artistically. I'd like to think that Ideal Husband would have been the last play of its type, and Earnest the first in a long line of new.
And what "type" is Ideal Husband? Like Wilde's earlier Lady Windermere's Fan and A Woman of No Importance, it's a melodrama, the theatrical staple of the day. In Ideal Husband, now on stage at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, Robert Chiltern's reputation as the only honorable member of Parliament is threatened when a mysterious woman blackmails him with the truth about the origins of his wealth and power.
Since this is Wilde, it is melodrama of the highest quality. Unlike most melodramas, the villain isn't nearly as awful as she could be, and the hero not nearly as likable. Still, the plot is creaky, and the coincidences too ludicrous to be credited.
Yet the most arresting aspect is how this play prefigures Earnest in the character of Lord Goring, Chiltern's friend and, for all intents and purposes, a preening dandy gone AWOL from Earnest. Spouting epigrams, treating the trivial seriously and vice versa, Goring is the sort of character for which Wilde is remembered -- and, consequently, he's completely out of place here. Every time he opens his mouth, Ideal Husband becomes something else.
Under Andrew S. Paul's direction, the PICT production hedges its bets by focusing almost exclusively on Wilde's humor and leaving the melodramatic machinations to the side. While this doesn't exactly solve the play's schizophrenic nature, it goes a long way toward smoothing over its more obvious joints.
I would have enjoyed a less aggressive collective acting style -- the company seems to inhabit a more cavernous space than I do -- but Nike Doukas makes for an extremely compelling villainess, and Paul Todaro has lots of fun with Goring's epigrams. It's left to David Whalen and Beth Hylton, as Chiltern and wife, to slog away in the goopy melodrama ... which they do perfectly, with conviction and style.
An Ideal Husband continues through May 31. Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org