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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Importance of Being Earnest

My dear fellow, the way you flirt with Gwendolen is perfectly disgraceful. It is almost as bad as the way Gwendolen flirts with you. — Algernon
I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her. — Jack
I thought you had come up for pleasure?. . . I call that business. — Algernon How utterly unromantic you are! — Jack
Lynn Redgrave
Lynn Redgrave (Lady Bracknell)
(Photo by Gerry Goodstein )
Perched in a fancy box positioned on high next to the proscenium is Oscar Wilde (Chris Spencer Wells). As expected, he is dandily dressed and undoubtedly looking forward to seeing his comedy performed. He waves and blows kisses to friends below between sips from a glass of wine. Because Wells has been assigned two other roles, that of servants Lane and Merriman, he leaves the box once the play begins. My only thought as the play got under way was had Wilde remained he might have been inclined to throw himself out of the box in light of the travesty made of his play. Totally without a moral, The Importance of Being Earnest is considered a farcical masterpiece, but you may not recognize it as such as directed by David Schweizer.

Presumably Wilde's intention was to recapture the unbridled joy and jollity of Restoration comedy, not an insignificant objective. It has survived the test of time due to its wit, its totally nonsensical plot and an almost reckless number of giddy allusions. Written in 1895, and home to such juicy tidbits as,"divorces are made in Heaven," and "in married life three is company and two is none," it treats Victorian morality with the sort of saturnalian touch only Oscar at his wildest could envision.

This humorous and almost illusive satire deals with the not too profound subject of mistaken identities. Two idiotic bachelor friends, wooing their loves through incredibly complex petti-fogging and machinations, reveal Victorian social conceits and deceits in probably the most lighthearted manner ever dramatized. But we can't always count on all the elements from acting to direction to design to fall into place. In this instance, however, it is the design that works best.

I'm sure that in subtitling his comedy, "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," Wilde didn't mean for it to be trivialized. And although I am in earnest in my disappointment with Schweizer's staging and the overall performance of the ensemble gathered for the production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, I have to admit that it was all very pretty to look at. Alexander Dodge's three bright and boldly expressionistic set designs favor three distinct pallets. Algernon Moncrieff's flat in Half Moon Street, W. is striking in black and white; the zebra stripped walls, and the hanging wild animals heads quite a funny/ghastly conceit. The garden scene takes green quite seriously and boasts a movable rose arbor. And the elegant drawing room flirts with red and its off-shoots. Both Schweizer and Dodge are making their Paper Mill debuts, the latter making a more impressive imprint.

Schweizer's staging, however, takes the tact that affectation is everything and that over-stepping the bounds of style is the way to deal with this otherwise glorious play. Except for the incomparably demonstrable Lynn Redgrave in the role of Lady Bracknell, the company for the most part has been encouraged to reduce the comedy's demanding style to its lowest common consideration and to consider its convoluting momentum as an excuse for gross pretense and excessive exaggeration. A paradox exists in the performance of Wayne Wilcox, as John Worthing, who oddly enough comes closest in the company to immaculately executing the Wilde-ian tone and temperament, particularly in Act II when, in a black mourning suit, he drolly announces his fictitious brother's death due to a chill in Paris.

In contrast, Jeffrey Carlson, as Algernon Moncrieff, throws the delicate play right off its delicate axis with his egregious over-acting. He does settle down somewhat into the play's comic mtier in Act III. Despite his good looks, his overly mannered countenance is a real turn-off. Perhaps because the sound designer Randy Hansen has over-miked everyone to sound irritatingly shrill, I wasn't able to really appreciate the quirky performance of Zo Winters, as Worthing's ward. That she conspicuously avoids being either winsome or winningly flirtatious allows her a unique handle on the role. However, her shouting at the top of her lungs at the deaf butler is also a rather cheap resort for a laugh.

Affecting high dudgeon with a naturalistic pomposity, Redgrave presided over her brilliant lines with the authority they command. Although Redgrave's costume in Act III would better suit the leader of the band at Ringling Brother's circus, she was otherwise gussied up in grand chapeaux and haute couture by designer David Murin. Murin's costumes were a highlight, notable for the way that the snappy Edwardian suits worn by the men miraculously complimented the dresses worn by the women.

Annika Boras more than got by in the role of the snobbish, snippy and superficial Gwendolyn. Cynthia Mace was a fine enough as Cicely's governess Miss Prism, as was Keith Reddin, as the Rev. Canon Chasuble. Wells (when he wasn't Wilde) provided the patently predictably manservant-with-an-attitude characterization and later hammed it up as the deaf and tottering country butler. Assigned to move set pieces, Justin Bellero and Matthew Capodicasa were obliged to flit about as a pair of footmen. Almost by universal acclaim, The Importance of Being Earnest is considered the apex of Oscar Wilde's stage works. Anyone unfamiliar with the play will be hard pressed to believe it with this production.

The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde
Directed by David Schweizer

Cast: Wayne Wilcox, Jeffrey Carlson, Keith redden, Chris Spencer Wells, Lynn Redgrave, Annika Boras, Zo Winters, Cynthia Mace, Justin Bellero, Matthew Capodicasa
Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge
Costume Design: David Murin
Lighting Design: Matt Frey
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
(973) 376 4343
Tickets ($25 - $92) Performances: Wednesdays at 7:30 PM; Thursday and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 PM; Fridays at 8 PM and Saturdays at 2 and 8 PM.
Opened 01/18/09 Ends limited run ends 02/15/09
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 1/18/09
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