The Importance of Being Earnest
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 10, 2008
Theater Ten Ten is giving audiences a delightful gift this month: a new production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest that, thanks to director Judith Jarosz and her sterling cast, feels practically perfect.
At the center of the story is Jack Worthing, a young man who lives quietly and virtuously in the country with his 18-year-old ward, Cecily, and her tutor, Miss Prism. What these ladies don't know is that Jack spends a good deal of time in the city, where he calls himself Ernest (he's told Cecily that he has a wicked brother by that name, which has only made her inordinately interested in meeting him). As Ernest, Jack has been courting Gwendolen Fairfax, and as the play begins he is about to ask her to marry him. Though she's willing, her mother, Lady Bracknell, is not—especially after she learns that Jack was a foundling (left in a handbag in Victoria Station) and has no parents or other relations to attest to his social standing and quality.
Algernon Moncrieff, who is Lady Bracknell's nephew and Jack's friend, finds out about Jack's charade as Ernest, and decides to indulge in one of his own. He journeys to the country, pretending to be Jack's brother Ernest, to woo Cecily, who is more than willing to allow it.
All manner of complications ensue (as if things weren't complicated enough already). And they ensue via some of the wittiest dialogue ever placed on stage; every time I see Earnest, I renew my opinion that this may be the funniest play ever written.
As in all excellent comedy, truthfulness is essential, even when the characters are as deceitful as Jack and Algernon or as loaded down with trivial concerns as Cecily, Gwendolen, and Lady Bracknell. Jarosz and her cast bring utter conviction to every moment of this production, with the result that we genuinely root for the two couples to get together. (This does not always happen at revivals of Earnest; there's a tendency to play only the brittle, witty surface, and to do so eliminates much from the work.) Kudos to Ten Ten for digging down and finding the real people underneath Wilde's brilliant caricatures, without sacrificing a single laugh in the process.
Christopher Michael Todd is wonderfully befuddled and hangdog and—dare I say—earnest as Jack; David Jacks is more effete as the epigram-spouting, terribly spoiled Algernon, but once he starts to get into deep trouble with Cecily, he makes a good case for his own lovesickness. David Fuller is delightful as butler to both of these gentlemen, sporting a broad Scottish accent as Jack's man Merriman, and a Jeeves-ian unflappability as Algernon's man Lane.
As the young ladies, Vanessa Morosco (Gwendolen) and Sheila Joon (Cecily) are splendid. Joon gets Cecily's girlish preoccupations with romance and with herself exactly right, without making her unbearable. Morosco is a revelation as Gwendolen, finding the sharp imperiousness in her still-nascent nature that lets us understand that this young woman will in fact grow up to be exactly like her mother, Lady Bracknell. I've never seen an actress play Gwendolen this way, and I loved its appropriateness.
As for Lady Bracknell herself—the comic character nonpareil for whom the word formidable was invented—well, Ten Ten has a terrific one in Cristiane Young. (Her fans from previous Ten Ten outings such as The Singapore Mikado and Happy End will not be surprised to know this.) Dressed to the nines in Lydia Gladstone and Kristin Yungkurth Raphael's lavish period creations, Young looks precisely right for the part, and she relishes each of Bracknell's hilarious pronouncements, reveling in the exquisite and unfailing rightness of her position at every moment. The other actors all quake a bit before Young's Bracknell, and believably so.
The cast is completed with Talaura Harms as the prim-teacher-with-past, Miss Prism, and Greg Horton as her shy suitor, the Reverend Chasuble. Both do well by their roles.
The entire production plays out swiftly and surely on David Fuller's elegantly simple sets. Appropriate lighting and sound are provided, respectively, by Hajera Dehqanzada and Shauna Horn.
Letting Wilde's timeless and delightful satire of society and romance shine on its own terms, this is as successful and enjoyable an Earnest as one could hope for.