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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The Importance of Being Earnest
a Trivial Comedy for Serious People

When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. --- Jack's attitude to his country life has prompted him to invent an imaginary brother named Ernest to account for his frequent trips to town to his young ward Cecily. His friend Algernon also likes to get away from family obligations (especially those involving his gorgon of an aunt, Lady Bracknell). His getaway persona takes the form of an imaginary and frequently in bad health friend named Bunbury (a sly twist on Wilde's buried puns).

Mark H. Dold as Algernon and Christopher Innvar as Jack
Mark H. Dold as Algernon and Christopher Innvar as Jack (Photo: Karl Sprague)
There's a reason why Oscar Wilde's last social comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, is regarded as his best play. Make that four reasons: 1. Earnest is chockfull of Wildean wit and wordplay. 2. The plot is an intricate puzzle with every piece brilliantly coming together 3. The characters are not just funny but memorable which includes the butler, usually pretty much a stock English character. Even as you're laughing yourself silly at some of Jack and Algernon's romantic antics and Lady Bracknell's pronouncements, there are nuances in these people that reveal Wilde's social and sexual identity concerns. 4. Unlike some much produced plays which lose some luster through familiarity and mediocre productions, seeing a well done Earnest can make one fall in love with its wit all over again, and savor every funny line as if hearing it for the first time.

And that brings us to Julianne Boyd's production which opened last Sunday at Barrington Stage. I've seen my share of Earnests (including one with Lady Bracknell in drag), but this one ranks right up there with the crème-de-la-crème. It satisfies on every level. A cast that couldn't be better. Gorgeous scenery and costumes. Direction that never loses momentum and captures the point-counterpoint rhythm of Wilde's dialogue.

Just in case you've neither seen or read the play, here's a brief plot synopsis: It's about the courtship of two society bachelors in the 1890s, Jack Worthing and Algernon (Algy) Moncrieff. In order to play away from home the men have invented fictitious characters to explain their absence -- from the country in Jack's case and town in Algy's. Jack meets Gwendolen Fairfax, daughter of the forbidding Lady Bracknell, introducing himself as Ernest. Algy goes to the country, pretending to be the fictitious Ernest, where he meets and woos Jack's ward, Cecily Cardew. Jack was a foundling, left as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station and adopted and named by a wealthy man which hardly satisfies Lady Bracknell's requirements for a son-in-law of suitable parentage. Both Gwendolen and Cecily capriciously insist that they can only love someone called Ernest which leads both men to arrange being christened Ernest. The mystery of Jack's true parentage is revealed during a meeting between Cecily's governess, Miss Prism and Lady Bracknell.

Ms. Boyd has smartly conflated the original four acts into two parts, putting a break after the first act in Algernon's London home, and unfolding the events at Jack's country home in the garden, thus eliminating a shift of scenery to the inside of the house. Thanks to Michael Anania, who also designed the set for Follies, you won't miss the third set specified in the script. Algernon's London apartment is inspired by the Art Nouveau motif and Stickley Furniture pioneered by Scottish architect, designer and watercolorist Charles Rennie Macintosh (1869-1928). A breathtakingly colorful wall of roses handsomely compensates for the absence of elegant furnishings for the scenes in Jack's house.

Even more lush than Annania's rose garden are Elizabeth Flauto's costumes. But while clothes may make the man (or woman), it's the performances of the actors wearing Flauto's period perfect outfits that make this Earnest so enjoyable. Since he appears first, let's start with Mark H. Dold's Algernon. The actors who do best by this part play Algernon as Oscar Wilde himself, which Dold does quite triumphantly.

Christopher Innvar, whose work I've enjoyed on and Off-Broadway as well as in Barrington Stage's The Game and Cyrano de Bergerac (see links below) here showcases his comic skills as Algernon's less suave bachelor buddy. Innvar and Dold expertly play off each other. Their likenesses are exemplified by their greedy appetite for life made concrete by the way they devour the cucumber sandwiches made especially for Algernon's aunt before her arrival; also the need to escape, at least occasionally, from the confines of their Victorian social world. Their difference are evident in Jack's being much more ready to "kill" his invented scoundrel brother Ernest to live happily ever after with the love of his life and Algy's declaration that "divorces are made in heaven" for men foolish enough to realize that the excitement of being in love ends with marriage.

Carole Shelley as Lady Bracknell
Carole Shelley as Lady Bracknell
(Photo: Karl Sprague)
Carole Shelley's Lady Bracknell is an aptly terrifying gorgon and her interrogation of Jack as a potential husband for her daughter is not surprisingly one of the play's highlights. Her famous exit line after learning of Jack's origins as a foundling left in a handbag at Victoria station lands with enough of a comic bang to have you laughing no matter how often you've heard it. ("You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter -- a girl brought up with the utmost care-- to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel.")

As the well brought-up Gwendolen, Jordan Simmons leaves no doubt as to who'll rule the roost if she and Jack marry -- thus bearing out Algernon's often quoted "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." As the equally proper and innocent Cicely, Meredith Zinner also lets us see the hidden strength beneath the country mouse ingenue facade.

Unlike some plays, Wilde allows the minor characters to make major contributions toward unraveling the mistaken identities, bringing unfulfilled romantic yearnings to fruition and all the while taking swipes at the manners and mores of the Victorian upper crust. Robert Zukerman ably doubles as Lane the butler and Chausable the clergyman and Tandy Cronyn is a dandy Miss Prism. Her pairing with Chausable rounds out the couplings which bring the subtext of hidden identities to a socially acceptable heterosexual happy ending.

As The Importance of Being Earnest ends happily, it also marks a happy ending and new beginning for Barrington Stage. Julianne Boyd has made the Sheffield high school that's been home to her company for ten years a major destination for Berkshirites and visitors to this beautiful, culture rich area. The remarkable success of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which began at the high school's second stage, and the well-deserved headline making praises for Follies earlier this season (see links below) clearly made this a ripe time for the company's move to its own home. Leave it to Ms. Boyd to meet the challenges of this move with flying colors -- expanding her season; finding a space to implement her plans for Second Stage season dedicated to developing new musicals as curated by William (Spelling Bee) Finn, attracting audiences from more distant locations; and helping to make the often announced "second coming " of Pittsfield a reality.

While Earnest ends Barrington Stage's tenure in Sheffield, the season is far from over. An older Finn musical, Elegies, will open next month at the beautifully restored and air-conditioned Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington and a concert version of Hair will divide its run between the Mahaiwe and the company's new home. In the meantime, I earnestly urge you not to miss Wilde's comic masterpiece.

The Importance of Being Earnest(Cocteau-NYC)
The Importance of Being Earnest(Aquila -NYC)
The Importance of Being Earnest (Shaw Festival)
The Importance of Being Earnest (Londonl)

Cyrano de Bergerac
The Game
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Playwright: Oscar Wilde
Director: Julianne Boyd
Cast: Carole Shelley (Lady Bracknell), Christopher Innvar (Jack Worthing), Mark H. Dold (Algernon), Tandy Cronyn (Miss Prism), Meredith Zinner (Cecily), Jordan Simmons (Gwendolen), Robert Zukerman (Lane the Butler & Rev. Chausable), Geoffrey Murphy (Merriman).
Set Design: Michael Anania
Costume Design: Elizabeth Flauto
Lighting Designer: Scott Pinkney
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Running Time: approximately 2 1/2 hours including one intermission
Consolati Performing Arts Center in Sheffield,413-528-8888, or
Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday and Thursday at 8pm, Friday at 2 & 8pm, Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 5pm.
July 21 through August 7, 2005 Tickets: $32 - $48 .
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on July 24th performance
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