The Importance of Being Earnest
David Schweizer’s new production of Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners,
The Importance of Being Earnest, now at the Paper Mill Playhouse, is not updated to the present, nor does it use any symbolic or surrealistic devices. Still, this is not exactly a traditional production of the classic play — although it is a pleasantly entertaining one.
Set designer Alexander Dodge has built an old-fashioned golden proscenium arch around the real Paper Mill stage with the image of a lush red curtain inside. A semi-circle of fake footlights also surrounds a downstage platform that extends into the audience. But most striking is the box seat that sits above the set and the dapper-dressed, long-haired young man sitting inside who is waving to the audience. It’s Oscar Wilde (played by Chris Spencer Wells), and we are all at the play’s premiere performance! Wilde even delivers the pre-show announcement on cell phones, which are “forbidden by order of the Queen.”
Schweizer’s heightened, hyper-theatrical approach to the play — which focuses on old friends Algernon (Jeffrey Carlson) and Jack (Wayne Wilcox) who venture out for a weekend in the English countryside — works well here because Wilde’s subtle humor might have been lost in the cavernous Paper Mill auditorium. The cast’s fast-paced, invigorating reading of the text keeps the audience glued to the plot. In fact, each actor makes a point of occasionally walking down to the footlights to deliver some dialogue directly to the audience.
Carlson displays a rock star attitude as Algernon, who pretends to have a sick friend named Bunbury in the country in order to escape social engagement, while Wilcox is far more reserved, rather like a young David Hyde Pierce. As Jack’s ward (and Algernon’s eventual love interest) Cecily, Zoe Winters takes the production’s theatricality motif way too far, turning scenes of dialogue into irritating shouting matches. Still, she does present the picture of a gal who is so full of brisk, unadulterated energy that she’d write love letters to herself from a suitor she’s never met before. Worse still, Annika Boras looks too mature and acts too coldly to realistically play Gwendolen, who is smitten with Jack.
The star attraction, however, is Lynn Redgrave, who delivers a far more ostentatious performance as Lady Bracknell than the one she gave in Peter Hall’s more traditional production, which briefly played Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2006. And while she often barks, stretches out lines, and bulges her eyes in shock, she still knows how and when to downplay her performance for the purposes of credibility. For instance, she merely whispers her character’s famed “handbag” line to realistically emphasize her disbelief.
In keeping with the production, David Murin has created a different scheme of colored costumes for each of the three acts. Meanwhile, Lady Bracknell is dressed along the lines of Cruella de Vil, while the footmen, who skip with gaiety while wearing white wigs, resemble Dr. Seuss characters. In my favorite touch of all, the walls of Algernon’s city flat are covered with the heads of a giraffe, hippo, alligator, moose, and other animals. It’s likely Oscar Wilde would have approved.