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"
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,
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
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
Algernon Moncrieff, as well as the two astonishingly lovely scenes
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
frames of glorious yellow, wherein a fastidiously fanciful and
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
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
This humorous satire deals with the not too profound subject of
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
The carefully schooled company inhabits Wilde’s complicated, hokey
plot with stylized aplomb. Any play that asks whether a leather
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
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
91 University Place, 609-258-2787. $35 & $39. Performances continue
through Sunday, November 7.
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