Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Importance of Being Earnest"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"The Importance of Being Earnest"

by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Peter Bennett

Set Design Harry Feiner
Costume Designed by Ted Giammona
Lighting Design by Joe Saint
Sound Design by T. J. Bandla
Stage Manager JohnD. Godbout

Algernon Moncrieff..............Matthew Amory
John Worthing..............................Steve Dane
Merriman.......................................Bill Taylor
Lady Bracknell........................Kathleen Huber
Gwendolen Fairfax.................Jennifer DiBella
Cecily Cardew..................Charlote Anne Dore
Miss Prism...............................Margaret Shaw
Reverend Chausuble........Michael G. Dell'Orto
Lane.........................Stephen Barkhimer

Harry Feiner's set for act one of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Worcester Foothills Theatre is all lush Moorish marzipan, with rugs and cushions and hangings. His set for act two is a spun-sugar filigree garden. And, since the division between them has been blurred, no matter what the program says there really is no act three. Even so, with a play in which every line is a laugh-line and nothing is ever taken seriously, the danger of dining on nothing but confectioners sugar is that one may happily laugh oneself sick. This is a totally professional production, in one of the best new theatres in New England.

Everyone in Oscar Wilde's play is of that posh, effete set who will never work an hour in their lives, who will fly to country estates when their London town-houses become a bore, whose aunts will plot engagements and marriages consulting a Stud Book of pedigree and a cold eye toward investments and income, and who can decide at age eighteen that no one not bearing the name "Earnest" can ever be a suitable husband. If this is not a world made of spun sugar and marzipan, what is?

The problem here is not to make the audience laugh, but to choose which of the myriad possibilities to point them toward. Director Peter Bennett has kept everything as light and frothy as a meringue, so that a slight pause, a drop in tone, or a snarled line-end is all it takes to lay the audience in the aisles. Deftest at slight pauses is Kathleen Huber as Lady Bracknell, whose seconds of silence can draw blood by their implication. Jennifer DiBella and Charlotte Anne Dore as Gwendolen and Cecily (who, arm in arm, might well have "Tweedle-" embroidered round the backs of their collars) are past-mistresses of the dropped tone, while Margery Shaw's Miss Prism excels in snarls. The variety of approach in these ladies' delivery lends a subtlety to the surface of the play that scholars could study at length without ever comprehending.

As Algy and Jack, who delight in playing at aliases, Matthew Amory and Steve Dane start the show trading epigrams and dryly toppling conventions on all sides. They are the sort whose soft breath can significantly alter the sheen on their fingernails, and --- until love galvanizes them into extraordinary action --- to whom the alteration in sheen is uncommonly significant.

Bill Taylor as Algy's Butler and Steven Barkheimer as Jack's are dutiful automatons obeying immediately and unquestioningly the every whim of their masters so crisply and devotedly as to call double-takes from the audience. And Michael G. Dell'Orto as a smitten and therefore tongue-tangled Reverend Chausuble rounds out the trio of eventually mated spouses. These are supposedly small roles perfectly delineated, with their own sorts of significant detail adding to the whole.

It would be easy for a mass audience to miss the subtleties or ignore the delicate detail in so frothy a confection, to denigrate the simple stand-and-deliver accuracy of these line-readings. Americans are ill-equipped to respond to the profound surfaces of English Edwardian fops. But a few hours spent at the Worcester Foothills Theatre studying Peter Bennett's excellently well-drilled cast should open their eyes and unlace their guffaws. This is a totally professional production, and funny as all hell.


"The Importance of Being Ernest" (till 29 November)
Foothills Courtyard off Commercial Street @ Worcester Common Outlets, WORCESTER

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide