Ali Ahn and Rachel Botchan in
The Importance of Being Earnest
(© Gregory Costanzo)
Ali Ahn and Rachel Botchan in
The Importance of Being Earnest
(© Gregory Costanzo)
One of the pluses of a resident company is consistency, but the perils include complacency. The Pearl Theatre Company's rendering of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest droops into the latter state. Director J. R. Sullivan's staging of this classic farce is mostly humdrum -- the kiss of death for so frothy a confection -- and the cast is wildly uneven.

The very set (by Harry Feiner) doesn't augur well. Are we to believe that young London gadabout Algernon Montcrieff (Sean McNall) commissioned a very clumsy copy of Whistler's famous Peacock Room paneling for his bachelor pad? And whence the country-rustic chairs? (Painting them gold doesn't fool anyone.) A more minimalist and less literal approach could have suggested the caste in a few deft strokes. As for costumes, Devon Painter has the women suitably attired, the men less so; at one point, Algernon (Sean McNall) appears to be sporting Dockers and a pink Brooks Brother shirt.

Still, such shortcuts might fade into the background had the actors taken more care to brush up on their British diction. For example, it's horribly jarring to hear the imperious Lady Bracknell (Carol Schultz, a veteran of 29 Pearl productions) giving a hard American 'R' to the word "girl." As for the totemic "handbag," the company's pronunciation hovers somewhere over the Atlantic.

Bradford Cover is well cast as urbane John Worthing, but McNall seems a bit green and overly impish as Algernon. Rachel Botchan gives us a Gwendolyn Fairfax who appears more bluestocking than fashionplate: she doesn't really come into her own -- nor does the production take flight -- until the Act II appearance of Ali Ahn (who is not a company member) as Worthing's clever country ward, Cecily Cardew. She finds the music in Wilde's words, and finally the repartee achieves lift-off.

Even so, the pivotal tea scene, which ought to be a high point in terms of hilarity, is awkwardly staged. Instead of settling into a seething tete-a-tete with Gwendolyn, Cecily hovers behind her back, directing the majordomo Merriman (Dominic Cuskern, who relentlessly overacts the servant roles) in the dispensation of sugar and provisions -- a cross-class collaboration that would never have occurred, even in the boondocks.

It's also a terrible error to present a Miss Prism (Joanne Camp, red hair refulgent) who looks like a contemporary of "Uncle Jack": Was she nannying and novelizing in her infancy? TJ Edwards does a fine job with Reverend Chasuble's flirty-academic overtures; if only he didn't hobble about as if firewalking.

Fortunately, Wilde in top form is pretty much impervious to even such unimaginative interpretations as these.