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A CurtainUp Review
The Importance of Being Earnest

In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing. .—-Gwendolen Fairfax
Ali Ahn and Rachel Botchan in (Photo: )
Few playwrights lived their art like Oscar Wilde did. Foppish in the extreme, Wilde spent much of his life portraying a near-caricature of the indolent artist, strolling from dinner party to salon to theater with style and flair. On occasion his appetite for both shocking and charming Victorian England—often at the same time—got him into trouble, most devastatingly towards the end of his life when he was sentenced to two years of imprisonment and hard labor for "gross indecency." It's both strange and yet somehow appropriate, then, that his greatest and last play was The Importance of Being Earnest, a work in which Wilde is able to expose the astonishing shallowness of society. . .yet leave the audience with a smile. I'm happy to report that in the play's latest incarnation at The Pearl Theatre Company, there's plenty of both social commentary and smiles to go around.

The Importance of Being Earnest follows the exploits of two upper class gentlemen, Jack Worthing (Bradford Cover) and Algernon Moncrieff (Sean McNall), who are both interested in women connected to the other man—Jack in Algernon's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (Rachel Botchan), and Algernon in Jack's ward Cecily Cardew (Ali Ahn). Jack, who is able to travel around London freely by using the assumed name of Ernest, wishes to propose to Gwendolen, and she is equally interested in him—largely because she has always dreamed of marrying a man named Ernest. But her mother, the indefatigable Lady Bracknell (Carol Schultz), is not nearly as enamored with the match; and for his part, Jack has no interest whatsoever in giving Algernon permission to pursue his ward. A series of misunderstandings and deceptions later, all seems lost. . .until an entirely improbable twist of fate changes everything.

The plot is, of course, completely ridiculous, but that's never the point anyway. Wilde was much more interested in characters and wit, and The Importance of Being Earnest is chock full of both. From lines like "You should leave [literary criticism] to people who haven't been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers," to "Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others," to "We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces," hardly a moment goes by without a telling point being made, and after several acts of such fare it's hard not to be awed by Wilde's skill.

The best thing to do when confronted with a tour de force like this is to get the feel of the lines properly and get out of the way, and the Pearl (which when at its best is exceptional at this) does exactly that. After a bit of a slow start, director J.R. Sullivan keeps most of the play moving at a decent clip, and the production's other elements establish the Victorian world nicely (though I did find Harry Feiner's set a little more drab than usual). As for characters, the Pearl has that covered too.

Bradford Cover delivers his usual solid performance as an increasingly bewildered Jack, and his performance during the revelations of the final act is particularly funny, while Schultz's Bracknell is appropriately commanding and infuriating. The rest of the cast is equally competent. But particularly good are McNall and Botchan. McNall's Algernon is exactly the right mix of roguish indiscretion and charm, while Botchan's rendering of Gwendolen's beatific declarations of romantic truth is both subtle and memorable. The cast seems to be having a good time with the play, and that makes it much more likely that the audience will have a good time with them.

This version isn't perfect; it takes a little while for the performance to get its bearings and establish the right tone of lightness with a bit of bite. The last thing Wilde would have wanted is an overdeveloped sense of reverence, and on occasion it feels as if there might be some danger of slipping over the line. But it never really does slip, and on the whole the production does an admirable job in letting Wilde speak for himself. And the result—as was usually the case when Wilde did speak for himself—is a nuanced play which manages to poke fun at society without being mean-spirited. The Pearl manages this balance ably, and delivers an excellent production which is well worth attending.

Editor's Note. Here are links to some other versions of Wilde's Earnest we've seen and reviewed:
London 2008
Los Angeles 2006
New York-Cocteu Theater 2002
New York-Aquila Theater 2003
The Importance of Being Earnest/Wilde, Oscar (Shaw Festival)
The Importance of Being Earnest/Wilde, Oscar (Londonl)

Playwright: Oscar Wilde
Directed by J.R. Sullivan
Cast: Ali Ahn (Cecily Cardew), Rachel Botchan (Gwendolen Fairfax), Joanne Camp (Miss Prism), Bradford Cover (Jack Worthing), Dominic Cuskern (Lane/Merriman), TJ Edwards (Rev. Canon Chasuble), Sean McNall (Algernon Moncrieff), Carol Schultz (Lady Bracknell)
Scenic Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Devon Painter
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: Mark Huang
Running time: Two hours, thirty minutes (includes two ten minute intermissions)
The Pearl Theatre Company, 80 St. Mark's Place, (212) 598-9802
From 4/15/08 to 5/25/08; opening 4/27/08
Tues. @ 7 p.m., Thurs. - Sat. @ 8 p.m., Wed., Sat. and Sun. matinee @ 2 p.m.
Tickets: Tues. - Thurs. $40, Fri. - Sun. $50
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on April 25th press preview performance
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