Review - The Importance of Being Earnest: That Was No Lady, That Was Oscar Wilde

"Can you tell me the purpose of that lady up there?" the fellow sitting next to me asked a few moments before Paper Mill's absolutely uproarious production of The Importance of Being Earnest was to begin.

When I explained that the person sitting in the mock theatre box overlooking the stage, sipping champagne and happily waving to spectators, was an actor dressed as the playwright Oscar Wilde, he actually gasped for a moment and blurted out, "That's a man?"

"Yes," I answered. "Don't you see the green carnation in his lapel?

Count me among the many who consider Wilde's 1895 manners masterpiece to be the funniest play ever penned in the English language. Unfortunately, I've seen too many productions that seemed so focused on petty annoyances like character development and acting choices that they've missed the obvious fact that Earnest is a vehicle for some of Wilde's most t-shirt and coffee mug worthy witticisms:

"More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read."

"If the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?"

"It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn't a dentist. It produces a false impression."

Half the battle is nailing the jokes. Fortunately director David Schweizer's production not only nails every joke with a solid comic blow, but whips up a madcap Marx Brothers-ish frenzy. With characters stepping out of scenes to deliver lines right to the audience and lighthearted ballets being made out of scene changes, this is by all means the broadest played Earnest I've ever seen - perhaps the cavernous Paper Mill stage demands such a style - and it's a riot from start to finish.

Jeffrey Carlson offers a hearty, bad-boy rock star swagger and a pitch-perfect delivery of Wilde's verbal wit as Algernon, the young London aristocrat who has invented a fictional friend named Bunbury, whose frequent need for care during bouts with bad health gives Algernon a good reason to excuse himself from dull social obligations. His real life pal is known as Jack when he's dealing with the serious matter of taking care of his ward, Cecily, out in the country, but reinvents himself as Jack's fictional brother, Ernest, when carousing with his friends in town. Wayne Wilcox plays the role with a slightly stuffy, but likeable preppy manner and the chemistry between the two gents gets the play to a rousing start.

Romantic complications arise when Jack proposes to Algernon's cousin, Gwendolyn (an elegant but romantically aggressive Annika Boras), only to find her love for him has been prompted by a desire to marry a man named Ernest. Later, Algernon becomes smitten with Cecily, only to find that she too has latched on to this fashion of desiring a husband named Ernest. Zoe Winters plays the role with very loud refinement and eloquent daffiness; her volume necessitated by having to deal with her elderly hard of hearing servant, Merriman. Wig designer Mark Adam Rampmeyer gives Merriman a high, white powdered wig to go with his heavily made up face and actor Chris Spencer Wells gives him a slow, hunched over walk and violently shaking extremities. An extended pantomime of Merriman serving tea is just hilarious. Wells also plays Algernon's servant, Lane, in a typically droll, erudite manner and is the actor dressed as Oscar Wilde observing the play from the box. Unfortunately, Wells' responsibilities playing the hired help forces Mr. Wilde to be absent from his perch for most of the evening, leaving the audience to wonder if the playwright may be partaking in a different kind of entertainment elsewhere.

The top-billed star of the evening is Lynn Redgrave as Gwendolen's haughty mother, Lady Bracknell, who disapproves of Jack/Ernest as a potential son-in-law because of his unusual parentage. A gem at this kind of high comedy, Redgrave mixes Lady Bracknell's sternness with episodes of dotty charm in an unusual but very funny interpretation.

Alexander Dodge's sets and David Murin's costumes are both eye-popping and laugh-getting. Algernon's drawing room is a black and white jungle, with the walls and furnishings dressed in zebra stripes and leopard spots. The animal heads mounted on the walls look fake enough to give the impression that, in the world of the play, they are also fake and are up there to be fashionable. Carlson models a magnificent black and white long jacket while at home with Wilcox dressed in sporty black and white plaid. The outdoor scenes at Jack's country home are splashed with greens (including grassy green chairs) and the reds dominating the final scene are highlighted by an outlandish outfit for Redgrave that makes her look like a life-sized peppermint candy. The style throughout the play mixes elegance with wild garishness and specks of the divinely off-beat.

This may not be a traditional mounting of the play but Schweizer makes sure all the nuttiness serves Oscar Wilde's text and never overwhelms it. It seems he really does understand the vital importance of being Earnest.

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