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A late-Victorian romp filled with Oscar Wilde’s relentless wit and merciless jabs at high society, the Shakespeare Theater Company’s The Importance of Being Earnest may be just the ticket for a bitterly cold winter’s evening. With wordplay that tickles the brain, creampuff costumes, an all-around insuppressible cheerfulness, and the kind of elocution that borders on the hypnotic, it’s easy to forget about things like snow, ice and unscheduled leave — as long as one doesn’t also fall into a long winter’s nap.
Which is to say that despite its confectionary-like pleasures (including some fine sets) and its exuberant good-naturedness, this isn’t the most riveting of productions. Though it’s hard to put a finger on it, suffice to say it’s something to do with a slight lag in rhythm, a slight lack of chemistry and a slight imbalance between the smug and the sardonic tones that must drive the play. Even with the built-in advantages of Wilde’s fragrantly evergreen wit and supremely clever silliness, a play like this will only truly fly if it’s as tightly bound as a lady’s corset.
The Importance of Being Earnest
(Photo by Scott Suchman)
And what isn’t tight enough, despite plenty of energy, is the dynamic between the two eligible bachelors at the center of the proceedings — the joyful, if feckless, Algernon, and the older, more calculating Jack. Just as the chemistry of romantic pairings matter, so does the friendship and frisson of Jack and Algernon. They must generate the devil-may-care silliness of over-privileged young men, but they must also set the witty and sardonic tone of the play and this is where a certain necessary magic never quite occurs.
Gregory Wooddell’s Jack delivers leading-man charisma, but his self-assurance and knowingness isn’t enough to overcome an expressiveness that is a whisper off beat, a whisper overplayed. It might only be measurable in nanoseconds, but it is just enough to leave the significantly more on-the-boil Anthony Roach too little for his Algernon to play against. Flip it around, and Roach’s improvy physical humor slightly clashes with Wooddell’s more measured style. Bottom line: each player has much to offer – Wooddell with his impressive presence and Roach with his excellent facility with Wilde’s speed and tone — just not with each other.
There is a similar if less pronounced shortfall between Jack and his paramour Gwendolen, but this is obviated largely by Vanessa Morosco’s phenomenal caricature of a late-Victorian lady which is such a show stopper there isn’t much need for an actual connection. Gwendolen is Wilde’s magnificently ridiculous portrait of the absurdly spoiled and over-privileged women of his day and she is meant to reside in her own universe, whether single, married or engaged. Although Morosco flies at times a bit too close to a (very good) Julie Andrews impersonation, she is saved by a definitive delivery of the sardonic goods when it counts.
There is a bit more potential in the coupling of Algernon and Cecily, the semi-secret ward Jack has been harboring at his country estate, but this is largely due to Roach’s puppy-like exuberance. Katie Fabel gives her ever-so-slightly rebellious young Cecily a nicely piquant expressiveness and good comic timing, even if it’s somewhat hard to see her attraction to Algernon.
Still, these quibbles on the frisson front are somewhat mitigated by the general hubbub of the plot, even if they do cause mind-wandering lags in the momentum. After all, this is a comedy of manners and the bromances and romances are mainly an excuse for bigger entertainments. Indeed, almost as soon as the action begins, Wilde throws Jack into the mix, showing us that he lives a less than transparent existence and that his engagement to the unassailable Gwendolen may not get past the formidable resistance of Lady Bracknell, her mother. With the mischievous Algernon causing as much trouble as possible, all manner of scathing social commentary occurs and near-social disaster threatens before an all’s-well-that-end’s-well finale.
And frankly, it is with the arrival of Lady Bracknell, that the production is pulled fully on track. Offering the perfect blend of menace, color and comic timing, Sian Phillips delivers Wilde’s wit in a way that makes one savor every word. She is a joy to watch and she lifts, shakes out and carries every scene she’s in. Another lynchpin is Patricia Conolly as Miss Prism, tutor and chaperone to the recalcitrant Cecily. Playing Prism in full spinster glory, like Phillips, Conolly brings Wilde’s wit to full and giggle-worthy life. Both play it large, but they do so with so much texture, subtlety and tongue-in-cheek wit, it proves exactly right. Exuding irony like his own personal sunshine, Floyd King brings devious humor to Chasuble, the priest with a soft spot for Miss Prism, injecting a small role with a convincing humanity.
Although director Keith Baxter does not pull from his ensemble quite the consistency and rhythm the play needs, there are plenty of highlights and a finale that arrives with energy and joy. The bottom line is that if you know the play, you will find pleasure in the production, even if a blast of icy air might do some of it a bit of good.