BWW Review: Coyote Stageworks' Zippel-Directed BEING EARNEST IN NEW YORK a Triumph at the Annenberg
For one "wonderfully entertaining" night only, Coyote Stageworks brought to the stage an all-star cast in a tremendously engaging staged-reading of Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST -- with a twist! Helmed, and created, by Tony Winner David Zippel, this EARNEST was set in modern day Manhattan and The Hamptons and was a (mostly) very satisfying adaptation. This special benefit performance marked the start of Coyote Stageworks' seventh season in the desert and their highly anticipated return to their home at The Annemberg Theatre in Palm Springs. As my readers know, I have long hailed Coyote Stageworks as the benchmark for professional theatre in the Coachella Valley and this stellar production gave no exception to that rule.
Zippel left the vast majority of Wilde's brilliantly satirical book intact, to his credit, but sprinkled in modern day references here and there to add to the fun and to point out, as intended, that social conventions haven't much changed in the past 120 years. EARNEST was a text-book reading -- music stands and microphones and no blocking per se -- but in Zippel's deft hands the production was well-crafted,well-paced and hit all of the right notes from curtain to curtain. A few of the contemporary references seemed a bit stilted and garnered polite groans rather than honest chuckles, but there was a particularly funny bit with "Siri" that was well-placed and inspired, and references to Barbara Sinatra, Hillary Swank and Hoda Kotb that were appropriately amusing.
The beauty of a reading is that, sans blocking and sets and costumes, the audience is allowed to focus directly on the creative collaboration between author and artist. And this terrific collaboration between Wilde and a sensational cast of stage and television veterans was a match made in theatre heaven. The enviable cast included Tony Winner Roger Bart who displayed, as he always does, impeccable comic timing and (no surprise) a strong knack for Wilde's vernacular. He was both, most appropriately, deliciously disarming and devishly disingenous. His "takes" and facial expressions are worth a thousand words and he surely knows how to use them to his advantage. In fact it was next to impossible to take one's eyes off of him at any moment he graced the stage. I say "next to impossible", but not impossible, because he shared the stage with a half-dozen other exceptional actors who were comfortably wallowing in their A-game. Wendie Malick -- dare I say comic genius -- provides a master class in line delivery. She know just where and how to "land" -- EVERY TIME -- for maximum emotional or comic impact. Lucie Arnaz, as the rector Dr. Chasuble (in a lesbian twist), was perfectly subtle and understated, and yet keenly aware when, and just how much, to insert herself firmly into the comic momentum of a scene to serve both the author's wit and the scene's intention. Perhaps the strongest performance was that of Joseph Fuqua (as Jack/Ernest). Fuqua delivered a seanless, layered and wryly comedic turn and was the grounding force in a farce "gone Wilde". His performance was both elevated and honest and I can't think of anyone I would have enjoyed more in the role. The big scene stealer was two-time Tony Nominee Millicent Martin as the maid, Bridget, in a cameo appearance, with few lines of real merit. yet hilariously captivating even when just entering or exiting the stage.
The production was enhanced by some clever graphics on a screen above the actors heads. The lighting and sound designs were deceptivelty simple -- as it was a "reading" - but highly effective, all the same.
BEING EARNEST IN NEW YORK was a triumphant homecoming to the Annenberg for Coyote Stageworks and a definitive sign -- no, a billboard -- of great things to come this season. Artistic Director Chuck Yates has consistently delivered high quality, truly "professional" theatre to desert audiences and his efforts should be applauded. Coyote has put the "must see" into theatre in The Coachella Valley and one would be prudent to grab the best seats in the house for the upcoming season offerings -- "Art" in March and "Agnes of God" in April. To purchase tickets or for further information visit coyotestageworks.org.