Fats and Wilde

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  June 7, 2006

All of the performers, strutting their stuff in Austin K. Sanderson’s sassy period duds with plenty of bling, are strong singers and know how to wrap their legs and hips around a rhythm and their lips around a double entendre. But Joe Wilson Jr. is first among equals, a triple-threat performer (quadruple, if you count sweating) who between turns in Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Trinity and NSMT showed his acting chops in Gash’s role-swapping Topdog/Underdog and as Horatio in Trinity’s Hamlet. He’s a long way from Elsinore when, bare-chested and decked out in glittering suspenders, he makes a slow descent, hanging from a rope, into the haze of “The Viper’s Drag,” with its dream of a reefer “five feet long.” Here he mixes brazen come-on with a stoner’s liquidity. Earlier the limber performer had concluded act one with a back dive into the centerstage trap. The whole cast, right side up, goes out that way at the end, set designer Emily Beck’s red-velvet-curtained birdcage of a proscenium descending as if to force them down. It really does seem the only way to put the lid on.

Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (at Wellesley Summer Theatre through June 24) is easier to contain. A woman in the rest-room line was bewildered by the play’s designation as a comedy, and her disorientation is easy to understand. Unlike that perfect gem The Importance of Being Earnest, which appeared the same year (1895), An Ideal Husband is a potboiler written in bon mot. Hinging on incriminating letters and secrets from the past, the play seems, beneath its glistening surface, to reflect Wilde’s apprehension of the personal and public-relations catastrophe about to befall him when he was found guilty of sodomy and remanded to Reading Gaol. Wishful, it belays the guillotine of public censure but reminds us not to put people on pedestals as rigid as our kneejerk morality.


AN IDEAL HUSBAND: Good but not ideal Wilde.

Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern seem blemishless, upright English aristocrats, he with a promising political career, when a blast from Robert’s past — beauteous, deadly, and decked out in “heliotrope” — shows up with a smoking epistle that could blow the whole works out of the water. Through assorted melodramatic contortions that include a noisily overturned chair and a hot brooch, the explosion is averted. But the Chilterns learn (though not thoroughly, the play ending with a last moral puff-up by Sir Robert) to remove the sticks from their posteriors and be more forgiving. (Let’s not even talk about the sexism built into the play’s requirements for human understanding.) Meanwhile, Wilde has fun satirizing shiny but shallow Victorian society and putting perfectly cut remarks about politics, ethics, marriage, and modernity, like witty little canapés, into people’s mouths.

Andrea Kennedy’s scantily elegant, period-set production for Wellesley Summer Theatre is competent if unexciting, and it features a languidly sharp performance by Derek Stone Nelson as that unusually masculine dandy, Lord Goring, unlikely best friend to the Chilterns. Nelson is an unflappable Goring with impeccable posture, making his haughty observations of matters and sincerely trying to placate a dear old dad who considers him “the idlest man in London.” The only person he may not be able to outsmart is his ex-fiancée, the elegantly unprincipled Mrs. Cheveley, who has recently arrived from Vienna with organza water wings on her shapely arms and blackmail on her lips. Alicia Kahn exudes shrewd sangfroid in the role, cracking only when Goring claps her in a diamond-encrusted handcuff.

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