Review: “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Shannon Cochran, Steve Haggard

RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers Theatre, Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through Dec. 23
Tickets: $35-$80
Phone: 847-242-6000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Every time I see “The Importance of Being Earnest”–and I’ve seen it lots of times—I’m reminded anew that it is one of the wittiest plays in the English language. Oscar Wilde skewers the manners and mores of British society in his 1895 masterpiece, but he does it with such style that the comedy is as much a delightful confection as a biting satire.

Writers Theatre’s production isn’t the funniest—except for Ross Lehman’s tour de force turn as both the ultra-sober city butler, Lane, and his seriously inebriated country counterpart, Merriman—but that may be because director Michael Halberstam is shooting for an unusual level of veracity. A case in point is his casting of Shannon Cochran as Lady Bracknell. Typically portrayed as an old battleax, often by a man, here she is the epitome of aristocratic elegance, a woman who could actually exist, yet her pronouncements, delivered with absolutely imperial authority, often are outrageous.

Still, much of “Earnest” turns on the absurd if endearing antics of people who are anything but…earnest. Lady Bracknell’s nephew, Algenon Moncrieff (Steve Haggard), in whose London home the first of the three acts takes place, has made a career of “bunburying.” His invented invalid relative, Bunbury, is his excuse for escaping to the country and otherwise avoiding responsibilities.

Algie’s friend, John “Jack” Worthing (Alex Goodrich), has a similar ploy. This serious and upright country gentleman uses his fictional, errant younger brother, Earnest, as his alter ego in the city. In this guise, he’s become engaged to Gwendolen Fairfax (Jennifer Latimore), though her mother, Lady Bracknell nixes the match after subjecting the prospective groom to a thorough interrogation that reveals he’s ignorant of his parentage.
At the same time, Algenon has become fascinated by Jack’s 18-year-old ward, Cecily Cardew (Rebecca Hurd), who he’s only heard about because she lives in the country.

The second and third acts move to Jack’s garden and house in Woolton, where the men’s falsehoods collide. Algenon arrives pretending to be Jack’s younger brother, Earnest, so he can meet Cecily, with whom he falls in love, as she apparently already has with him just on the basis of her guardian’s descriptions of his bad behavior. He’s soon followed by Jack, who’s dressed in mourning and explains he’s come from the funeral of his brother. Meanwhile, Gwendolen and Cecily, both of whom swear they’ve always wanted to marry someone named Earnest, believe they’re in love with the same man.

Halberstam avoids the temptation to direct any of this with tongue in cheek and tries to make sure the bon mots have substance behind them. Goodrich’s Jack is seriously put out by the unexpected presence of Haggard’s Algenon, and both men excel at becoming increasingly hysterical as their frustrations intensify. On the other hand, Latimore’s exceedingly well-bred Gwendolen and Hurd’s somewhat giddy Cecily keep their cool and rule the day with their hilarious face-off and alternating declarations of sisterhood and antipathy.

Rounding out the ensemble are Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (Anita Chandwaney), a would-be novelist whose absentmindedness is at the root of Jack’s problem and its solution, and Reverend Canon Chasuble (Aaron Todd Douglas), the gentle and rather clueless clergyman who’d like to court her.

Collette Pollard’s scenic design creates a kind of storybook setting that balances Halberstam’s approach to the script with rotating walls of obviously painted backdrops and almost generalized furniture. Mara Blumenfeld’s stunning costumes—which differentiate nicely between city and country—also are stylized with some accents color-coded to the set. (The bobbing yellow feathers on Lady Bracknell’s hat are hilarious.) John Culbert’s lighting and Josh Schmidt’s sound design also are first-rate.

One caution, however: Try not to sit too far off to the side of the house. From where I was on a packed opening night, I was conscious of looking at actors’ backs a lot. During the first half of the face-off between Gwendolen and Cecily, all I saw was Gwendolen’s back; her body completely blocked Cecily’s.