- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

The fourth time is not the charm for Arena Stage and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” This time around, director Everett Quinton, a member of New York’s subversive Ridiculous Theatrical Company, takes the helm, and the result is closer to flat ginger ale than a glass of Veuve Cliquot.

Oscar Wilde’s breathtakingly witty 1895 comedy has been called by author Russell Fraser “as close to perfection as a play can ever be brought.” And therein lies the peril. Wilde’s play is an airtight confection — one false move, one jarring note— and all the lightness and seemingly effortless artifice is compromised. You are left sitting there marveling at Mr. Wilde’s fusillade of fizzy one-liners while grinding your teeth at the agony of comedy gone bad.

If surface beauty were all it took to nail an Oscar Wilde play, then this staging of “Earnest” would be a grand success. The peacock-plumage of Zack Brown’s costumes and his set provide ample visual splendor.

Enormous brass sunflowers lean over the set, which features a vibrant rug in a pattern of entwining vines and furniture lavished with trimmings, painted details, gilding and other decorative folderol.

It all creates the ideal hothouse atmosphere for a dandy, in this case, the marvelously self-involved Algernon Moncrieff (Ian Kahn), who lives for amusement, food, drink, and any opportunity to toss off a brilliant bon mot. He is never serious about anything — that is, until he meets the innocent darling Cecily Cardew (Tymberlee Chanel), and sets out to marry her. However, Cecily is the ward of Algernon’s friend John Worthing (Michael Skinner), who would rather die than see her married off to a reprobate.

Worthing is having love troubles of his own, since his beloved Gwendolen Fairfax (Susan Lynskey) has been deemed off-limits by her steamrolling mother, Lady Bracknell (Claudia Robinson). Lady Bracknell, whose stentorian delivery and over-elaborate mannerisms put you in mind of a well-upholstered gargoyle, will not marry her daughter off to a man of Worthing’s questionable parentage.

You see, as a baby Worthing was found in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station, and the double-take this revelation induces has been one of the enduring classics of modern comedy. Mr. Quinton takes this device further by giving us an “Earnest” goosed up with low-comedy conventions — spit takes, cartoony sound effects, slapstick humor, bumps and grinds accompanying certain lines, in short, a burlesque approach to Oscar Wilde.

The problems of this broad tack are exaggerated in the Fichandler’s wide, circular stage. Drawing room comedies derive much of their laughs from the near-miss proximity of the characters; here they seem to be calling their lines out from neighboring counties.

The vulgarities do not work either, for the most part, instead giving the production a gaudiness at odds with its visual beauty. The actors, too, seem at conflict with the material, fighting with the dialogue instead of relaxing into its pristine rhythms. Everyone gets shrill and screechy at some point, even the men.

Some actors acquit themselves faultlessly. Mr. Kahn hurls himself headlong into the affected perfection of Algernon, his buoyant and boyish portrayal of the character as natty as the boutonniere he sports in his lapel. He is utterly believable both as a metrosexual bachelor and Cecily’s dapper love interest.

Miss Chanel comes to life in the fey, teasing exchanges between them — her Cecily as pert and upturned as the flowers she waters when she’s in his company.

Hugh Nees, too, comes up with some spoofy and inspired bits playing butlers in two distinct households.

Except for a handful of exuberant performances, Arena’s “Earnest” is a three-hour exercise in how an Oscar Wilde play should not be done. It flies by like a commuter plane in a holding pattern over Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport: You can see your destination, but not quite get there.

**

WHAT: “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

WHERE: Fichandler Theatre, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 26.

TICKETS: $45 to $59

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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