Theater review: Earnest goes American sitcom
By Jim Lowe
Staff Writer | February 10,2013
Charlie Glazer photo
Jack and Gwendolyn embrace despite the warnings of Lady Bracknell, back, in Northern Stage’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is one of the wittiest comedies of all time, poking fun at society’s desire for style over substance. Friday at the Briggs Opera House, Northern Stage opened a lavish production of this classic that was, if a bit silly, thoroughly entertaining.
“The Importance of Being Earnest,” Wilde’s last play, which opened just before his incarceration for sexual transgressions, follows the trials and tribulations of Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, two superficial young London gentlemen, at the end of the 19th century.
Both have invented alter egos to avoid difficult social situations. Algernon has a sickly “friend” in the country named Bunbury, whom he must constantly visit, in order to escape for fun and games. Jack’s home is in the country with his 18-year-old ward Cecily Cardew, to whom he is Jack. Jack claims a wanton brother Ernest, whom he must constantly visit in the city.
Jack wishes to marry Gwendolyn Fairfax, Jack’s cousin, but first he must convince her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell. Gwendolyn knows Jack as Ernest — and she would only marry someone named Ernest.
The wily Algernon discovers Jack’s country address and goes there to woo the comely Cecily while Jack is away, representing himself as the evil Ernest. Cecily is attracted by the “bad boy” but she, too, is only interested in marrying an Ernest. And, of course, Lady Bracknell must be satisfied. High jinx ensue.
These wonderful characters’ war of words is razor sharp and delightfully scathing, making Wilde’s comedy one of the most popular in theater’s history.
Northern Stage’s production, at Friday’s opening night, was certainly funny but heavy-handedly trampled much of Wilde’s wit. Director Carol Dunne eschewed the traditional stylized English comedy tradition in favor of an American TV sitcom style that made Neil Simon seem subtle.
Each time a character would say something witty or funny, he or she would draw attention to it, either by changing their voice, physical expression or activity, to make sure the audience got it. The point of this comedy is that these characters invest nothing in virtually anything they say — therein lies the satire, and what makes this play so deliciously funny.
There were all sorts of sight gags as well, and physical comedy. Droll went down the drain.
That said, Northern Stage’s production was well cast, with two outstanding performances. Catherine Doherty delivered a richly comic performance as Lady Bracknell, enjoying all the grand dame’s witch-like qualities. And Talene Monahon, save for a few moments of overdoing it, was a charmer as the not-so-innocent Cecily.
Matthew Cohn was perfectly supercilious as the conniving Algernon while Brough Hansen was perfectly earnest — though not Ernest — as Jack. Alexis Hyatt proved witty and charming as Gwendolyn.
Another outstanding performance, in a smaller role, was M. Carl Kaufman’s droll performance as the well-meaning Rev. Canon Chasuble. He was matched by Kasey Brown’s Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor.
The physical production was lavish and beautiful, with sets by Carl Tallent, costumes by Jessica Risser-Milne, and lighting by Burke Brown.
Northern Stage’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” despite its TV sitcom style, was certainly funny — as attested to by Friday’s enthusiastic, guffawing audience.
Northern Stage presents Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” Feb. 6-24 at the Briggs Opera House, Main Street in White River Junction. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, plus a 2 p.m. matinee Thursday, Feb. 14. For tickets or information, call 296-7000 or go online to www.northernstage.org.