Friday, June 15, 2007

Still Witty After All These Years

It's a busy time for theatre critics. Last week it was Keegan Theatre's 1776. Last night it was Keegan's The Importance of Being Earnest (see below). Tonight it is Signature Theatre's U.S. premiere of The Witches of Eastwick. Sunday it will be the Shakespeare Theatre's Hamlet. Hardly time to breathe, much less compose a review -- especially considering the commute from Charlottesville to D.C. and back.

Here's one for today. Perhaps more to come over the next 72 hours.

The Importance of Being Earnest:
Still Witty After All These Years
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

(ARLINGTON) --- The Importance of Being Earnest is one of those plays that, despite being produced frequently and upon multiple viewings, never grows stale.

The Internet Broadway Data Base (IBDB) lists eight known Broadway productions of Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners between 1895 and 1977 (though none since). This does not include the Broadway production of Travesties, Tom Stoppard’s 1975 Tony-winning play that uses large portions of Earnest as a play-within-a-play. There have been nine film or TV versions (including one with an all-black cast, directed in 1992 by Kurt Baker), according to IMDB.

Benefiting from being in the public domain (like Shakespeare’s plays), The Importance of Being Earnest lends itself to being kneaded, rolled, snipped, rearranged, reset, recostumed, and even mauled (as in Joe Banno and Jeff Keenan’s hilarious but ultimately unsatisfying all-male version for Source Theatre Company in 2000, relocated to Washington and Rehoboth Beach). The most recent film took the play out of the drawing room and brought it into the wider social world of late-Victorian London and the English countryside, even including a hot-air balloon landing for a dramatic entrance.

Because the flexibility of Earnest lends itself to so much experimentation, it is refreshing to encounter a production that pares the play down to its essence, letting the words and characters shine through without frills.

This is what Keegan Theatre’s New Island Project has to offer at Arlington’s Theatre on the Run, an intimate black box that is perfectly suited for hearing Wilde’s epigrammatic dialogue delivered, generally, with aplomb.

Director Dorothy Neumann has reduced the set to a few wooden benches, a tea cart, a movable doorframe, and a piano (used to great effect). The costumes are full and reflective of late-19th century England, but not so elaborate as to inhibit the actors’ movement.

Neumann has a flair for pulling line readings from her actors that are just-so. With surprising turns of vocal modulation, she and her cast have transformed many of Wilde’s witticisms from the clich├ęs they have become through a century of repetition into surprising and trenchant comments on life and society.

The two pairs of lovers – and by this I mean Mike Innocenti as Algernon and Christopher Dinolfo as Jack, and Suzanne Edgar as Cecily and Erin Buchanan as Gwendolyn – fit together delightfully. Unfortunately – or perhaps this is what Wilde intended – the male-male and female-female pairs have far more chemistry between themselves than the male-female pairs that are the ostensible stimulant for the plot. As an example of this chemical bonding, the set-piece in which Cecily and Gwendolyn share tea on the terrace in near silence evoked guffaws from the audience, even as the two of them did little beside refusing to look at each other.

Barbara Klein, as Lady Bracknell, ostentatiously enjoys one of the meatiest roles for women-of-a-certain-age in the theatrical literature. Wilde gives her the lion’s share of his best epigrams, and Klein revels in them without overdoing it. She says as much by raising an eyebrow as she does by bellowing “Prism!” in the revelatory third act unraveling of Wilde’s thickly-plotted (and nearly Dickensian), interwoven storylines.

Prism, played by Rosemary Regan, and the Reverend Chasuble, played by John F. Degen (returning to the stage after a two-decade absence, long overdue), suggest autumnal romance and affection that drifts dangerously close to lust, but without crossing that line. The tension that results from Prism’s prissiness and Chasuble’s self-effacing shyness is spot on.

One odd choice Neumann makes – perhaps out of necessity – is her casting of a woman as Lane and Merriman (respectively, Algernon’s and Jack’s manservants). Played as a female character (in full Victorian housemaid’s costume), Melissa Hmelnicky’s presence and responses as Lane to Algernon’s commentary on marriage and courtship lends an edgy, if not awkward, aspect to the dialogue, and one that is not entirely believable in the context of the play and its times. (The problem is not so evident in the scenes with Merriman, whose presence is more utilitarian.)

My only quibble with this show is that there were a few moments in the play where the actors stumbled over Wilde’s lines, which require a precise delivery. For the most part, these stumbles were minor and probably unnoticed by the majority of the audience. Perhaps this was due to the actors having had a few days off between the opening weekend and the performance we saw.

Still, as I say, this is a small quibble and should not discourage anyone from heading to Theatre on the Run to enjoy the delights of The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, continues through July 7 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington. Performances Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets $20 general admission, $15 students and seniors. Special group rates for groups of ten or more. To reserve: telephone 703-892-0202 or email

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