The Old Greenbelt Theatre in Greenbelt, Maryland, has an interesting history and a unique repertoire. With its steam-stack logo above the marquee and streamlined features everywhere present, the Old Greenbelt Theatre (OGB) screams Art Deco authenticity.
The theatre was originally set up as a cooperative (more on that below), and now shows classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, newer art house films, and filmed presentations of selected stage productions.
We begin with a review of OGB’s upcoming showing of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.” This 2018 motion picture is especially interesting because it is a film of a live production a play which was originally broadcast live to cinemas around the world from the Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End; it thus fuses traditional live theatre with the broad reach of the movie screen (a rounded 1950’s Cinemascope screen), for a show written in 1895!
Directed by Jonathan Church, the play is in some ways similar to Wilde’s still-popular comedy of manners, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” “An Ideal Husband”, however, feels especially fresh and relevant given its subject matter and socially-oriented wit for which Wilde was justly famous.
The play centers on a dilemma which confronts one Sir Robert Chiltern. He is being blackmailed to give a speech to Parliament promoting a canal scheme which he knows to be bad in order to promote the interests of Mrs. Cheveley, the villainess of the piece. This affronts not only Sir Robert’s morality, but that of his wife Lady Chiltern, who admires her husband as the “Ideal Husband.” Unfortunately, it turns out Sir Robert’s fortune is based on circumstances at are less than “ideal.”
The play, and this performance of it, brings out many important universal issues: Can people change? Are those who idolize people doing a disservice both to those they idolize as well as to themselves? And, especially relevant for our own time, how important is personal honesty in one’s public life? As one character states:
“Never mind what I say. I am always saying what I shouldn’t say. In fact, I usually say what I really think. A great mistake nowadays. It makes one so liable to be misunderstood.”
Or consider this reflection on the role of wealth:
“What this century worships is wealth. The God of this century is wealth. To succeed one must have wealth. At all costs one must have wealth!”
The stagings are generally set in English drawing rooms, as one might expect for an English comedy of manners – though a comedy of manners with issues of our time such as greed and corruption. Seeing the staged production on screen works surprisingly well, with excellent close-ups and crisp sound.
A fabulous personal touch to this production is found as the father-son characters The Earl of Caversham and Lord Goring are played endearingly by real-life father-and-son Edward Fox and Freddie Fox. Edward Fox is a veteran British actor whom Americans might best remember in the film “Gandhi.”
Showing such classic and noteworthy films is why the Old Greenbelt Theatre is an invaluable community resource for Prince George’s County, a mission which has been underway since the theatre first opened in 1938. Kelly McLaughlin, the theatre’s director of marketing and development, is very much the historian as she explains the early days of the theatre and how it ties into the notion of Greenbelt as a “model city” of the New Deal era: “What makes the Old Greenbelt Theatre very unique is its history.
When it opened in 1938, it was a cooperative, so the residents of the surrounding Greenbelt would make decisions about what movies to show and what concessions to sell as a collaborative effort. That’s very different than many of the movie palaces that were open at the time. The theatre was truly a reflection on the intent of the Green cities experiment, which was true cooperative living.
That goes into its unique situation within a New Deal town and the history of Greenbelt and the other (historic) ‘Green Cities’ around the country that the Roosevelt administration experimented with. The Theatre would likely have been visited by notable dignitaries from the US and around the world, as Greenbelt was often showcased by the administration to visiting dignitaries as an example of their ideal of a New Deal town.”
Old Greenbelt Theatre continues its unique mission today. Run as a non-profit venture, the theatre continues to host a broad variety of presentations which do not often appear in movie houses today. Upcoming films include “Capernaum,” nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film, the “Children’s Film Festival Seattle,” and “Mirai,” directed by Japanese animation master Mamoru Hosoda.
The venue also offers movies from classic Hollywood, generally on the first Monday of the month. Upcoming shows will include “The Women” (1939, showing on April 1) and Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956, showing May 6).
And, returning to Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband:” this reviewer recommends it, borrowing from the title of another Wilde play, very earnestly! Viewers should note, however, that there will be only two screenings of this worthy show – March 10 at 8 p.m. and March 11 at 1 p.m. – so reserve tickets soon!