Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

October 27, 1999. All rights reserved.

McCarter Review: `Being Earnest’

Lady Bracknell’s observation, as she appraises her

nephew Algernon, "He has nothing, but looks everything,"

practically sums up the stunning-looking production of "The

Important of Being Earnest" now at McCarter Theater. On this

occasion, it does not seem inappropriate to give the production’s

designers — Christine Jones (settings), Jess Goldstein (costumes),

Michael Chybowski (lighting) — as much credit as one might

ordinarily give to the esteemed playwright Oscar Wilde and the

players. Wilde himself states emphatically in this ultra-witty putdown

of upper class Londoners that, "In matters of grave importance,

style, not sincerity, is the vital thing." And visual style here

is virtually matched by the singular sincerity of director Daniel

Fish’s vision, and a complement of impeccably polished performances.

Totally without a moral, and consciously recapturing the joyful gaiety

of Restoration comedy, "The Importance of Being Earnest"

remains

today a lesson in how to make a farcical masterpiece. If the 1895

play survives the test of time chiefly due to its masterly wit,

totally

nonsensical plot, and giddy allusion, Fish’s invigorating and newly

restorative visual conceit is emphatically welcomed. Even as one may

find portions of the staging a bit tedious, one need only look

at the visually empowering designs of Jones (a lecturer at Princeton

University whose growing number of impressive credits includes Julie

Taymor’s "The Green Bird") to keep the eyes open and awed.

Famous for containing such juicy tidbits as, "Divorces are made

in Heaven," and "In married life three is company and two

is none," the comedy’s Victorian morality is treated with a

Saturnalian touch only a wild Oscar could envision. Matched by the

agreeable players’ performances, the designers’ work also provides an

unending source of merriment.

It was clear to me from the moment the curtain went up that the

Victorian

world created by the designers was going to be as outre and daring

as the text undoubtedly was in its time. It isn’t every gentleman’s

London flat that could boast a life-size stuffed zebra, a

ferocious-looking animal skin rug, a huge pool table, and a Baroque

grand piano as competing focal points in the parlor. These and a

modest sprinkling of Oriental

objects d’art decorously accent the domicile of the narcissistic

dandy-about-town,

Algernon Moncrieff, as well as the two astonishingly lovely scenes

that follow.

As the British upper classes were fashionably attracted

to the influx and influence of Oriental exotica and art in the late

19th century, in a genteel revolt against revered Victoriana,

Jones uses atmospheric boldness to audaciously ridicule the

era and its protectors. The trend towards superciliously embraced

Orientalism is as hilariously exalted as is Lady Bracknell’s stoic

belief in a stuffy society’s protocol. As performed in the highest

of high dudgeon by Laurie Kennedy, this indomitable gorgon of polite

Victorian society appears as well rooted as ever in each absurd

observation, interrogation, and appraisal.

Equally committed to playing unconventionally with the conventions

of the day, Jones places the town and country goings-on within

minimalist

frames of glorious yellow, wherein a fastidiously fanciful and

abstracted

world is created. Don’t be surprised by the sight of a garden whose

immense wall of multi-colored roses is manicured to look like a

dragon’s

tail. Even as we pause to laugh at the quaintness of Lady Bracknell’s

grandiloquence and her lessons, the settings lift the whole

preposterous, but wise, plot to the rarest level of satiric

truth. Even Goldstein’s take on 1895 fashions celebrate the

expressionistic panache of the production. The appearance of a

delicately flowered parasol and Lady Bracknell’s flamboyantly

feathered hats soar along with the play’s uninterrupted flow of

witticisms.

This humorous satire deals with the not too profound subject of

mistaken

identities. Two idiotic bachelor friends, wooing their loves through

the incredibly complex ploy of both a fictional friend and a fictional

brother, reveal Victorian social conceits and deceits in probably

the most lighthearted manner ever dramatized. The McCarter could not

have chosen a more suitable play to contrast the season opener, the

taxing psycho-sexual cavorting that propel Sam Shepard’s "Fool

for Love."

The carefully schooled company inhabits Wilde’s complicated, hokey

plot with stylized aplomb. Any play that asks whether a leather

handbag

can serve as "a proper mother," or why there are no cucumber

sandwiches for Lady Bracknell, deserves the slyly observant touches

of director Fish. He sees to it that Algernon (given to foppish excess

by an otherwise amusing Jefferson Mays) gets one of the biggest laughs

of the evening when he strips behind the zebra and nonchalantly stows

his pajamas in the side pocket of the pool table.

To my mind it is Henry Stram, as Algernon’s friend Jack Worthing,

who most winningly and cunningly evokes the life of one totally at

ease in the world of morning rooms, drawing rooms, and formal gardens.

I was dutifully smitten by their respective ladies-in-waiting, the

young Cecily (Katie MacNichol), and the eligible Gwendolyn (Laurie

Williams). With each character the personification of upper-crust

superficiality, this quartet of synthetic lovers is aided and abetted

most efficiently by the bespectacled governess Miss Prism (Molly

Regan),

the Reverend Chasuble (deliciously played by the scenery, consonant,

and vowel-chewing Everett Quinton), and the impeccable, double-duty

butlering of Denis Holmes.

If you hurry to the McCarter before November 7, you can find out for

yourself if Algernon eats the last muffin at tea, or if Lady Bracknell

will overcome her objection to Worthing’s marriage to Gwendolyn. Above

all, you will discover why I am recommending this not too important

play in earnest.

— Simon Saltzman

The Importance of Being Earnest, McCarter Theater,

91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $35 & $39. Performances continue

through Sunday, November 7.


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