The Importance of Being Earnest
PlayMakers Repertory Company
Through March 21
PlayMakers Repertory Company is wrapping up its preposterously ambitious 2009/2010 main stage season with a gorgeous production of Oscar Wilde's most delightful play—still fresh after 115 years—The Importance of Being Earnest.
That's life in the academic world: It's not even spring yet, but already we must look forward to fall. After laughing our way through this artful confection (although another PRC2 second-stage production will play at the end of this month), it is impossible not to want more from PRC's dynamic mix of company members, guest artists and super-talented actors-in-training, and to want it sooner than it can be had.
For Wilde's "trivial comedy for serious people," PRC brought in director Matthew Arbour, who keeps a happy balance between straightforward storytelling and comedic carryings-on, in which the actors include the audience in their private circles of arch knowingness. He doesn't overdo it—just enough that you are irresistibly reminded of a smart child checking to see that the grown-ups are bright enough to catch his jokes. The play, first staged the year that Wilde's own double life began to unravel, concerns the necessity of being oneself if one hopes to achieve one's desires and not get caught in a snare of one's own lies. It is a layered torte of invention, imagination, deception, masquerade and revelation, stuffed with jokes, farcical situations and social commentary sharp as Lady Bracknell's hatpins. Although the play makes fun of everyone and everything, it doesn't have a mean bone in its body, and no bitterness mars the happy ending.
The redoubtable Lady Augusta Bracknell is one of repertory theater's great roles, and if we are more than usually wary of her barbs and hatpins, it is because—in a testament to his imaginative and technical range as an actor—she is manifest by the commanding actor Ray Dooley. (What will he do next, Lady Macbeth?) Dooley appears like a warship in battle array, armored in brocade, his wig topped with tremendous hats at unlikely angles. Lady Bracknell's daughter, Gwendolen (Julia Coffey), is similarly garbed, a sly underline to Wilde's famous remark about all women becoming like their mothers. Costumer Anne Kennedy's attention to the communicative power of the clothes carries through to all the characters. Miss Cecily Cardew (the dewy Marianne Miller) wears only delicate soft fabrics, while her governess, Miss Prism (the highly comic Julie Fishell), is firmly belted and crowned with an absurd straw boater, sartorially expressing both her repression and her sprightly hopes.
Lady Bracknell sails onstage to create situations and utter most of the best lines before steaming off again, but Algernon Moncrieff (John Brummer, indolent, charming and sneaky) and Jack Worthing (Jeremy Webb, self-righteous, overwrought and sneaky) suffer no shortage of zingers as they carry the action with their comic doubling of themselves. Jimmy Kieffer, playing two butlers, has nothing of consequence to say—but nearly steals every scene in which he appears.
The surprise on opening night was the substitution of understudy Matthew Murphy for Jeffrey Blair Cornell as the Reverend Chasuble. Murphy was visibly nervous in his first scene, but he channeled those jitters into a droll performance, and soon he and Fishell were sparkling through some of the freshest bits of the production.
In an ensemble like this, the actors are all stars. But there is another. PlayMakers has the wherewithal (talent, money, time, facilities, students) to build and decorate elaborate sets, and Marion Williams has created a brilliant one for this show, combining late-Victorian style with the emerging Art Nouveau impulses of the era. Like Kennedy's costuming, it provides a tremendous amount of information. And just wait till you see the merry-go-round.