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Circle Theatre’s new mounting of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” is a handsome, hilarious production. To refer to this play as a drawing room farce makes it sound like some sort of embalmed museum piece. But with the deft direction of Jim Schneider and his truly remarkable cast, this 1895 comedy jumps immediately, vibrantly to life.

We are escorted into an atmosphere of elegance and privilege where all the dialogue is deliciously cynical. Surprisingly, both the plot contrivances and the over-the-top stock characters seem modern and plausible. The talented ensemble is brilliant.

Wilde’s dizzying plot zips along with a series of ironic twists and turns, yet it’s never tricky to follow.

Jonathan Nichols is Sir Robert, a dedicated, rising politician who’s honed an impeccable career out of being above reproach in the eyes of society and-more importantly-in the eyes of his devoted, adoring wife, Lady Gertrude (Denita Linnertz). But she can never tolerate character flaws, especially in her own supposedly ideal husband. So when we learn Sir Robert has a single dark secret, an illegal mistake in which he once made a huge fortune in some sort of Enron type-swindle, there’s a major marital conflict.

Linnertz’s performance as this upright, dutiful woman illustrates the danger of putting someone else on a pedestal.

Sir Robert’s quick-witted best friend is a rich and idle bachelor, Lord Goring, played with the proper blend of smugness and decadent charm by Bradford R. Lund. “To love ones’ self is the beginning of a lifelong romance,” the self-absorbed dandy observes.

Saren Nofs-Snyder portrays a vicious but attractive blackmailer named Mrs. Chevely. She’s an unexpected, unwelcome visitor from the past who shows up at a party and threatens to ruin Sir Robert’s reputation with an incriminating letter. Nofs-Snyder doesn’t play this role as a stock villainess but rather like a glamorous film noir femme fatale.

But will the foppish playboy Lord Goring, who was once engaged to this scheming beauty, turn heroic and be able to save the day?

Wearing pink plumes and heavy ropes of pearls as Sir Robert’s witty younger sister is the charming Catherine Ferraro. She steals every scene she’s in.

Judith Hoppe is delightful as a gossipy blue-blooded matron, a typical Wilde reflection of the shallow but fashionable Victorian elite. She’s convinced that the higher education of women has begun to make marriage hazardous.

Peter Esposito portrays Lord Goring’s constantly nagging, disapproving father. A long-suffering valet is played by Phil Carlin. Adam Pasen and Max Richardson are man-servants. Sarah Pretz and Erin Reitz are a pair of chattering, hoity-toity party-goers.

Of course, despite Oscar Wilde’s insightful one-liners and dead-on epigrams, there are a few aspects of this 112-year-old comedy that occasionally make you cringe, especially its attitude toward women. Wives of the 19th century, we must remember, often lived through their husbands.

This production has been generously underwritten by grants from the Pauls Foundation and the Chase Hunter Group. The resulting art direction is bedazzling.

Bob Knuth’s sumptuous sets are downright breathtaking. When a gorgeously appointed “Oriental” style jade green and gold library rotated before our eyes to become a formal English drawing room, there was an enormous burst of applause. I don’t recall ever witnessing such an enthusiastic audience response to a mere change of scenery.

Elizabeth Schaffer’s Late Victorian costumes are equally incredible, from the wigs to the jewels. Her creations highlight and enhance the characters. Righteous Lady Gertrude, though lovely, appears rather dull and mid-Victorian-not in the high fashion Belle …poque mode of her peers.

On opening night, Circle’s artistic director, Kevin Bellie, stepped before the curtain to announce that with this performance, the company was inaugurating its new central air-conditioning system. Gone are the noisy, temperamental old window units.

In 1895 “An Ideal Husband” was playing to packed houses in London when the gay or bisexual playwright’s personal life suddenly put him dangerously at odds with the inflexible Victorian social inhibitions he so often mocked and rebelled against. Wilde went to trial and was subsequently imprisoned on charges of “gross indecency.” But despite the sad outcome of his life and his once scintillating literary career, Wilde’s works obviously can still delight audiences.


Ideal Husband

  • Circle Theatre, 237 Harrison St.
  • Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m., through Aug. 5
  • Tickets: $23
  • Call 771-0700 for reservations