THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2005

I had been looking forward to seeing this production of The Importance of Being Earnest for months, and so I was puzzled that I left the theatre feeling empty and unfulfilled. Certainly Barrington Stage has mounted a beautiful and professional production cast with attractive and talented actors. Oscar Wilde’s 1895 script has lost none of its dazzle. And yet this show did not excite me in the way witnessing a great work of literature and theatre usually does.

The last production of Earnest that I saw was about two years ago, and I remember being just thrilled with it. What were the differences?

The major difference was the setting. The 2003 production I attended at Hubbard Hall was set in the round. I felt close to and a part of the sublime silliness. In the Consolati Performing Arts Center the traditional proscenium stage was a far away box in which the actors and action were hermetically sealed. I felt shut out.

Forced to watch Wilde’s impossibly clever characters from such a distance they seemed small and foolish. Comparing Earnest with the earlier and more dramatic Lady Windermere’s Fan which I saw a few weeks back at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Earnest felt like eating cotton candy. It looks so pretty and tastes so sweet, but it melts away in an instant. I cared whether or not Lady Windermere got her fan back, but I found that I didn’t much care about silly women who couldn’t possibly marry a man if his Christian name wasn’t Ernest.*

Director Julianne Boyd has assembled a really top-notch cast, each one perfect for his or her role. Mark H. Dold as Algernon Moncrieff and Christopher Innvar as Jack Worthing made a convincing pair of veddy, veddy British buddies equipped with more time than money and more schemes than brains. Jordan Simmons played Gwendolen Fairfax, beloved of Jack, with more girlishness than I am accustomed to. I always think of Cecily as the silly one and Gwendolen as the one with the cool and sophisticated air.

I did love Meredith Zinner as Cecily. She is on the stage for a minute or two before she speaks, and her speaking voice is a wonderful contrast to her appearance. The latter is all smokey and sultry, while the former is all girlish glee. It is as if she is channeling Kathleen Turner, and it is both funny and effective. This Cecily is not as naďve as she appears, and it is no surprise that she gets exactly what she wants in the end.

I found the famous dialogue in Act II between Cecily and Gwendolen was slightly disappointing. Wilde’s words were wonderful as always, but somehow the timing was off and the tension didn’t build between the two women until too late in the game.

I am very tired of monumental Lady Bracknells, and so I was pleased to find that Carole Shelley played her as a thinking and quite reasonable woman of moderate proportions. I mean, why would you want your niece to marry a man who was found in a handbag at a railway station? That is a very poor pedigree indeed.

Tandy Cronyn would ordinarily be way too talented to waste on the tiny part of Miss Prism, but I imagine she took it on as a lark – a role she had always wanted to play that afforded her a couple of weeks vacation in the beautiful Berkshires. She lights up the stage and gives a very enjoyable performance. She looks like she is having fun.

Robert Zuckerman assays the dual roles of Lane, Jack’s London manservant, and Reverend Chausible. I found his dour and deeply repressed Lane hilarious, but felt that he rather underplayed Reverend Chausible, a man so beset upon by the female sex (as unmarried country vicars often are) that he is reduced to fear of misinterpretation at every turn.

While Shelley and Cronyn are true stars of the stage, the real star of this production is Michael Anania’s Act I set inspired by the work of Charles Rennie Macintosh (1868-1928), a Scottish-born architect, designer and watercolorist associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement and later with Art Nouveau. The set Anania has created to represent Jack’s London flat is beautiful and fantastic, but it almost overpowers the play and I am not sure but that it doesn’t distract more than it enhances the proceedings. Earnest is a fairly intimate play, and Anania’s soaring, swooping lines are too grand. They make it feel as if Jack and Algie are at play on the vast acreage of stage at Radio City Music Hall or some gem of an art nouveau theatre, rather than exchanging barbs in a cozy drawing room.

The garden set which serves for the action of Acts II & III is much more intimate and therefore more appropriate and effective. I did find it amusing, however, to re-enter the theatre after intermission to be greeted by walls of pastel colored roses almost identical to those created by Neil Patel for the second act of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Now we see the collective unconscious at work. Not only did three area theatre companies decide to produce plays by Oscar Wilde this summer, but two expert designers were inspired by his words to use identical set components.

Elizabeth Flauto has designed costumes that are appropriate to the period but a little too restrained given the lavishness of Anania’s sets. I found the color schemes of Gwendolen’s ensembles to be a bit garish, but everyone else looked almost too subdued.

I wish that I could lay my finger on exactly what made me feel so blasé about this production. A wonderful script, an excellent cast, a top-notch director and designers - nothing was wrong but something was not right. My heart did not sing as I left the theatre, and that is a great pity.

The Barrington Stage Company production of The Importance of Being Earnest runs through August 7 at Mt. Everett Regional High School on Berkshire School Road in Sheffield, MA. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office 413-528-8888 for tickets and information.

* For the record I have a grandfather, uncle and cousin named Earnest (with an A, thank you very much) on my mother’s side, and on my father’s side I have an aunt named Ernestine, so no one knows so well as I the importance of being Earnest, but I have never allowed it to become an obsession.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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