The Importance of Being Earnest
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
April 21, 2006
With a cast led by veteran Lynn Redgrave, Sir Peter Hall’s superb direction, beautiful Victorian costumes, and glossy sets, it is still the wonderful, witty words of Oscar Wilde that steal the show in the current production of his classic farce The Importance of Being Earnest, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The implausible story involves two aristocratic, feckless young men, Algernon Montcrief and Jack Worthing, who invent alter egos to escape distasteful obligations and unpleasant relatives. This, of course, leads to a farcical mess when each falls in love with a lovely and equally shallow woman—Jack with Gwendolen Fairfax, daughter of the indomitable Lady Bracknell and Algernon’s cousin; and Algernon with Cecily Cardew, Jack’s ward. Mixed identities, marrying well, but most of all, presenting a good front, are plot vehicles for the steady stream of bold insights that Wilde uses to punch holes in the hypocrisy of late 19th century Victorian England. The insights are so keen, so timeless, and presented on such a finely polished platter that today’s audience howls in unison at the mirror before them.
James A. Stephens sets the tone when he enters the richly-appointed flat in near slow motion. He is Lane, the butler, and he, like all the characters, lives by wit. His pace is hilarious as he carries tea sandwiches to their resting place. They don’t last long as Robert Petkoff’s Algernon, a user and a man of entitlement, picks the plate clean even as his friend Jack, played by James Waterston, watches and before his expected guests, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen, arrive. Petkoff and Waterston reel off their repartee with ease. Waterston plays Jack as a serious sort, who comes to the city from his country manor to swoon over Gwendolen and win her hand. His demeanor is a nice contrast to Algernon’s arrogance, although the chemistry of two good friends rarely surfaces.
Once Lady Bracknell arrives, she fills the stage as she is supposed to, and Lynn Redgrave gives her the dramatic sweep and imposing demeanor of the dominating relative who means for her daughter to marry well. In tow, but never subservient, is her daughter, Gwendolen, played with tart confidence by Bianca Amato. Amato moves like a woman with a plan, and it’s all too plain that her plan involves marriage to Jack despite her mother’s disapproval. By the end of Act I, the imbroglio is satisfyingly set in motion and hints of further complications are amply laid.
One of those complications involves Miriam Margolyes, beautifully cast in the role of Miss Prism, the plump tutor for Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew. Although Margolyes periodically settles on a sing-song delivery, her presence manages to intimate a life of secrets and longing. A small gesture or a look gets every laugh she deserves as she crosses the stage like a hot air balloon floating two inches above the ground. Charlotte Perry does a nice job as Cecily, Algernon’s love interest. The remainder of the cast is rounded out by Terence Rigby as Reverend Canon Chasuble, Geddeth Smith as Jack's servant Merriman, and Greg Felden as the footman.
Production designers Kevin and Trish Rigdon have an eye for detail without cluttering. They create marvelous ambience. Each of the three acts uses a grand arch outlining doors for the comings and goings necessary in farce. In Act II, the draped wisteria around the arch denotes a garden, and it is simple yet elegant. Same with the costumes. The men parade in crisp suits, colorful cravats, and spats. The women’s gowns are made for swishing and turning. Redgrave’s boa permits her the perfect bold exit, Gwendolen’s hat feather rises and falls with each slight movement, and dainty, cloth handbags contain mysterious, unpredictable accoutrements.
It all comes together under Sir Peter Hall’s able direction. His affection for Wilde’s masterpiece is evident. The characters speak as if their words are pushed from the depths, giving emphasis to words of little importance. Other times they speak in run-on sentences to very comic affect. For Wilde’s characters, it is style, not sincerity, that matters. But Wilde is very sincere and his dialog nails his characters’—and society’s—hypocrisy dead-on. The audience, heaving with hilarity throughout, shows how current, how vital The Importance of Being Earnest is.