Important…Earnest, at Western Stage, Sep 21, 2013

Style always trumps sincerity

By Philip Pearce

With the comedies of Oscar Wilde it’s always about the words. Like tasteful British fireworks, they’re written to soar and sparkle. Stumble, mumble, slur or punch them and they drop like lead pellets. Give a cheer: The Western Stage’s new mounting of The Importance of Being Earnest flows trippingly upon the tongue, crackling along in a way that seems almost un-American.

EarnestGardenwalkAll that arch and artificial talk demands some adroit stage blocking as well, and Director William J. Wolak’s cast moves with the coordinated discipline of a crack marching team. The play’s spirited co-heroes Jack Worthing, (the versatile and funny Jesse Huston) and Algernon Moncrieff (Kerel Rennacker, all pompous pride and wounded vanity) set the pace minutes into Act I and it doesn’t flag for the next two and a half hours. That there wasn’t more audience response on the Friday I went was no fault of the well drilled cast. More likely some end-of-the-work-week blahs and a script that demands a lot of careful attention.

Earnest is a comic staple which pops up again and again in any self-respecting community theater’s repertoire, producing longtime fans who anticipate the arrival of pet sequences the way opera buffs lie in wait for favorite arias. There is always Lady Bracknell’s famous third degree interrogation of Jack as a prospective son-in-law, an ordeal he survives well enough till she learns he started life not in an aristocratic family nursery but in the folds of a handbag in the cloakroom of the Victoria Railway Station. All of that went just fine, thanks to a cowed Jack and a fiercely determined Lady Bracknell played by Donna Federico less as a ruthless gorgon than a busy little aristocrat of such overweening social confidence that she can smilingly patronize the rest of us poor social misfits with sure-fire rules of correct behavior.

As her daughter Gwendolyn, Rose A. Blackford is delightful, brisk and formidable, torn by her maidenly passion for suitor Jack but never losing her grip on social correctness. Her conflict with her mother over being banished to “The carriage, Gwendolyn!” is a high noon shootout between two iron wills. It’s pretty clear Jack is justified in wondering whether, once married, Gwendolyn will evolve into a certified copy of her mother. In the role of Algernon’s beloved Cecily, all done up in flowing pink, Amanda J. Salmon creates an artful Edwardian flirt and tease who contrasts neatly with the more corseted and mannered Gwendolyn.

Another favorite sequence for Earnest fans is Algernon and Jack conducting a major dramatic confrontation while they stuff their faces with muffins, done here with hilarious brio by Rennacker and Huston. Less successful, I felt, was Gwendolyn and Cecily’s famous discovery that they both seem to have got themselves engaged to the same man at the same time. Their cat fight is scripted in the most unctuous of Edwardian courtesies, with the fury hidden and surfacing only when Gwendolyn finally explodes over being served sugar in her tea and a cake instead of bread and butter. Blackford and Salmon mouth the pleasantries clearly enough, but they show the underlying irritation almost from the start so the joke falls flat. They would have done better to take to heart Lady B’s earlier insistence that style always trumps sincerity (at least in any Oscar Wilde play).

Cecily’s tiresomely moralizing tutor Miss Prism is usually costumed and acted either as a grimly garbed spinster or a wispy woolgathering frump. Not so with the wonderful and well-groomed Betsy Andrade and the TWS costume room which fitted her out as a kind of willowy pre-Raphaelite on a country weekend. It’s an attractive innovation that works well enough, though it clashes with Lady Bracknell’s description of Prism as a person of “repellant” appearance. Nevertheless, the hope is raised that the grand dame will be mellowed by the more forgiving Reverend Dr. Chasuble once the young couple has tied the nuptial knot. Larry Welch plays Chasuble with plenty of countrified theological bounce, but his name gave other cast members a few pronunciation problems. Just as Wilde gives Jack and Lady Bracknell the jokey last names of English country towns, he names his clerical comic after an Anglican Eucharistic vestment, whose first syllable should rhyme with “jazz” not “jaws.” (Trust me on this; I have one hanging in my hall closet.)

Moving down the cast list, Michael Nickerson deserves a double bouquet for playing Algie’s impeccable and sardonic Mayfair butler with such finesse and then turning up, hardly recognizable, as a rural debt collector with a convincingly raspy British country bumpkin accent. I had more trouble with Nathan Brown and Pasi Eltit who make pleasing appearances as a couple of country estate servants but whose dialects (Central Europe? Ireland? English Midlands?) I was at a loss to identify.

A final word on another innovation: characters in this production sometimes direct their barbs of wit and private ruminations not at other characters but straight into the audience. Was this an appeal for a more engaged reaction to the comedy itself than was evident at last Friday’s performance?

The Importance of Being Earnest continues through Oct 6. Photo by Richard Green. Posted Sep 22, 2013