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LETTERS TO EDITOR
The Importance Of Being Earnest
Jean Cocteau Repertory under the guidance of David Fuller enters its 32nd season with an intriguing, if somewhat tame season. One never tires of Shakespeare, Chekhov or Wilde, but The Importance of Being Earnest is done much too often, while Wilde's other works are neglected. The film version this year of this by now venerable masterpiece rightly brought shame to all who participate but this stage version should bring the Cocteau nothing but credit.
Roman Tatarwicz is deserving of the highest praise for providing a marvelously simple, yet elegant, stage design for the three distinct settings of this classic comedy. The two interiors, first of Moncrieff's flat and later in the third act of the Conservatory at the Manor House work perfectly. My favorite was the designer's splendid English garden setting for the second act. Stage hands work the flats, so the stage literally opens out, like a child's folding picture book.
Much credit goes to the superb performance of Jason Crowl whose Algernon hits the right note. The actor has adopted a pitch-perfect petulant drawl, which is the verbal equivalent of decadent self-pity. This seems to be what Crowl does best. He was splendid in last year's Small Craft Warnings by Tennessee Williams, for which he affected a sexy indolence. He is much better playing cynical than enthusiastic, more at home with wayward than with straight-laced. Everything here is done to perfection. He has all the right moves, including a hilarious cucumber sandwich-eating scene in the first act, which delights the audience. His American accent works fine, as do his darkened eyes, and tussled hair. All together Crowl plays Algernon as Oscar Wilde himself, and triumphs.
Crowl plays well with Amanda Jones (Cecily Cardew), as he proved in last year's Arms and the Man. They look good together and have that indefinable magic that acting teams yearn for. Ms Jones has a pre-modern charm that doesn't hurt. Her pale skin and full form tell us she is from a different age, and that helps transport us back to an era when for women trivia mattered. Jones flirts, banters, and pouts, marvelously. This makes her the perfect Shavian/Wildean heroine. Her scenes opposite Crowl are special and go a long way toward making this a successful Earnest.
No one else quite comes up to the standards set by Crowl and Jones, but Michael Surabian (John Worthing), playing against type, tries hard. This actor has a strong voice and lots of intelligent energy, but he doesn't quite "get" the airhead quality Wilde was after. This Earnest is too earnest by half. Nevertheless, Surabian rises to the occasion in the second act, going toe-to-toe with Crowl and giving a solid performance.
. Worthing's sweetheart is, of course, Gwendolen Fairfax, played here by Carey Van Driest. This actress has much going for her, including a quick wit and winning smile, but her performance could have been so much better had the costume designer given her something more flattering to wear. Dressed from floor to earlobes in dull brown, poor Gwendolen looked like General Eisenhower from the waist up and Mary Poppins from the waist down. And this is a beautiful woman!
Abe Goldfarb (Lane/Marriman) performs admirably in the first act as Lane, the straight-laced butler to Algernon, one of the great comic roles of the English stage. Evidently he was directed to turn on the John Cleese antics in the second act, when he plays butler to Mr. Worthing. Oscar Wilde is not Monty Python. Director Ernest Johns should know better than to allow these goofy antics, which mar an otherwise fine production. Wilde, after all, only works when played straight, and is all the more amusing when played with deadly seriousness. Funereal is going too far, but the actors must not be allowed to smirk and mug as Goldfarb does in the third act.
Over-acting is allowed to weaken the performance of Angela Madden (Lady Bracknell). Here we have the simple case of an actress asked to do too much. Madden simply does not have sufficient weight to pull off this by-now iconic role. To make up for it, there is much heaving and snorting; so much effort is made that the natural monstrosity of Lady Bracknell is lost. Again, matters might have been different had she been given a decent and appropriate costume, but instead she is required to wear an outfit more befitting the 4th century Byzantine Emperor, covered as she was head to toe in a blinding royal purple.
Marlene May (Prism) performs adequately, although she seems a bit too formidable for the role. It is hard to imagine this Prism taking any crap from her aristocratic betters. And it is a bit hard to believe that this tough cookie could lose anything, let alone a child in a handbag. Prism as written by Wilde is not too bright, one should imagine; May strikes one as being far too smart to hang with this crowd, and she doesn't know how to play dumb.
Finally, there is Harris Berlinsky (Rev. Chasuble). That this otherwise capable actor cannot put together a credible English accent after 25 years on stage is -- well, what can one say? One could turn his performance into a parlor game: is he Hungarian, Viennese, Finnish or Basque? I will say this: Maryl Streep herself doesn't have as many accents under her belt.
Although weak in several areas, this production has numerous strengths. The pacing, for one thing, is perfect. This is a fast moving adventure, which never sags. The sets, as said above, are magnificent, as are the leads. Crowl is worth the price of admission alone. Besides that, it is a gorgeous piece of writing. When all else fails, close your eyes and listen: it doesn't get any better than this.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF OTHER COCTEAU PRODUCTIONS MENTIONED
Arms and The Man
Small Craft Warnings
For a CurtainUp review of a London production of the play go here.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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