The Importance of Being Earnest
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 26, 2008
Every time I see Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest I am more convinced that it is the most perfect and funniest stage comedy of all time. It certainly never seems to wear out its welcome. And so even though there have been several occasions of late to catch this classic work on stage here in New York City, the current revival at the Pearl Theatre Company is entirely welcome.
I refer you to Sparknotes for a detailed plot description (with spoilers!). I will instead start with a little serenade to the cast of eight, each of whom gets some time in the limelight in this elegant, leisurely-paced production helmed by J.R. Sullivan.
The two young men who would both be Earnest are portrayed by Pearl regulars Sean McNall (Algernon) and Bradford Cover (Jack). Both bring a certain maturity to their roles that makes them more capriciously Wildean than youthfully callow. To watch McNall's focus never waver from a platter of cucumber sandwiches (in Act I) or muffins (in Act II), despite the sometimes nonsensical epigrams that he spews incessantly, is to appreciate the foolishness and pragmatism that exist side-by-side in this iconic character. Cover's big opportunity comes in the final scene, in a wonderful negotiation with Lady Bracknell that reveals him to be her match or more. And the climactic moment when Jack consults the military records of the past four decades has never felt bigger or funnier than it does here.
As the objects of their affection, Ali Ahn (Cecily) and Rachel Botchan (Gwendolen) are delightful. Gwendolen has the lines that I love most in this play (the one about having something sensational to read on the train and the one, again near the end, where she vows to wait forever for Jack), and Botchan made me laugh out loud at both of them. Ahn projects a lovely schoolgirlish romantic earnestness in Cecily's bewilderingly detailed fantasies of engagement to her cousin Ernest.
In the smaller roles, three pros prove that adage about how there aren't any (small roles, that is). Dominic Cuskern plays both Algernon's man Lane and Jack's man Merriman, and he's splendidly wry as both. The bit where he lays the table for Gwendolen and Cecily's tea is priceless—a comment on the divide between the classes that doesn't always get made nearly so clearly. T.J. Edwards is the Reverend Chasuble, as likably foolish as he needs to be. And Joanne Camp comes close to stealing the play right out from under her colleagues with a richly detailed portrayal of the nervous tutor Miss Prism: no one I've ever seen has made such capital of the return of the lost handbag as Camp manages here in one of the show's most memorable moments.
My sense was that Carol Schultz as Lady Bracknell is trying something interesting in her characterization—namely, that Bracknell is actually clever and self-aware. But it doesn't feel supported by the script.
The first act's pace was sluggish at the performance I saw, but the remaining two scenes sparkle and shimmer and leave us hungry for more even as the curtain (metaphorically) rings down when the proceedings are through. Devon Painter's costumes are opulent and appropriate, Stephen Petrilli's lighting and Mark Huang's sound are evocative and unobtrusive, and Harry Feiner's sets, especially for the garden in Act II, define the world of Wilde's exquisite play effectively. It's a world that's a kind of funhouse mirror to all the shallow silliness of our own, even more than a hundred years after it was created.