Friday, April 21, 2006

REV: Earnest Importance

THEATER REVIEW
'Importance of Being Earnest': Cucumber Sandwiches and Polite Society on a Skewer
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD, The New York Times


A cordial acquaintance with Oscar Wilde's "Importance of Being Earnest" should probably be a prerequisite for participation in polite society. It is, perhaps, an even greater cultural asset for those seeking entree into the impolite kind.

New Yorkers who have not yet had the pleasure should therefore pay a visit to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where a perfectly respectable production of Wilde's masterwork from 1895, directed by the venerable Peter Hall and featuring Lynn Redgrave as the peerlessly imperious Lady Bracknell, opened Wednesday night at the Harvey Theater.

On the other hand, for those whose familiarity with the play already extends to the friendly, or even the intimate, respectability may not be a sufficient inducement. In the subversive comic universe created by Wilde, after all, an imputation of propriety — perfect or otherwise — is not really the highest praise.

Which is all a strenuously Wildean way of saying that Sir Peter's new staging of this decorously radical comedy is satisfactory, but something short of brilliant. A production of the Theater Royal Bath/Peter Hall Company, it was first presented in January in Los Angeles and has toured to several other American cities. Blandly, if prettily designed by Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon, it seems intended to function in a variety of milieus, with fine detail sometimes sacrificed in favor of the broad stroke. As a result the play works effectively here as a romantic farce but more erratically as a vehicle for Wilde's paradox-perfumed wit.

The first act must be borne aloft on language alone, as the tracks are laid for the advancement of the deliciously ornate plot. At the Harvey these early passages remain stubbornly earthbound, while Robert Petkoff, as the splendidly idle Algernon Moncrieff, and James Waterston, as the equally unoccupied Jack Worthing, exchange baroque banter over cucumber sandwiches. Even the arrival of Ms. Redgrave's unusually vigorous Lady Bracknell, accompanied by Algernon's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (Bianca Amato), Jack's beloved, causes little more than a blip on the play's comic barometer.

The actors tend to treat the language more casually than is ideal, as if the substance of Wilde's humor and the style of its delivery were not intimately related. The paradoxical jokes are imparted clearly enough, but often without the dry delicacy that gilds them so pleasingly. These are priceless morsels being served on everyday china.

The slight strain in some of the performances may derive in part from the production's awkward fit in the Harvey Theater. It has obviously been designed for proscenium stages, and the Harvey's proscenium is divided from the front-row seats by a semicircular space usually used for performing. Some lawn-chair-style seating has been deployed to fill in the gap, but there is still an unhappy distance between the actors and most of the audience.

Things improve considerably in the second and third acts, as the story of assumed names, mistaken lovers, resurrected brothers and the secret history of a handbag begins to assert its preposterous enchantment. The perfection of Wilde's plotting comfortably cushions any infelicities in the performances.

Mr. Petkoff comes into his own in the love scene between Algernon and Cecily Cardew (a charming Charlotte Parry), Jack's innocently sophisticated ward. This duet is played at the right pitch of puffed-up emotionalism, the melodramatic ardor softened by the characters' implacable refinement.

The dainty hostilities between Cecily and Gwendolen, who purr like kittens before baring claws when they mistakenly assume they have become engaged to the same young man, is played with a crowd-pleasing ripeness.

Maneuvering her stout form like a miniature battleship, Miriam Margolyes is formidable and robustly funny as Cecily's gently censorious governess, the fatefully forgetful Miss Prism. And by the time Jack arrives, resplendent in mourning for an imaginary brother whom he will soon be facing in the flesh, the production is on firm comic ground, prepared to roll briskly to its blissful conclusion.

The long-awaited return of Lady Bracknell in the third act always kicks the play into a higher gear, and it is higher than usual here because of Ms. Redgrave's energetic presence. Actresses undertaking this celebrated role often labor in vain to escape the influence of Dame Edith Evans, whose fluting splendor in the 1952 movie by Anthony Asquith is perilously close to definitive.

To her credit Ms. Redgrave molds her Lady Bracknell along entirely different lines, presenting her not as a monstrous abstraction of a respectable English gentlewoman but as a distinctly earthy figure, a woman constructed not just of rococo syntax and ironclad attitudes but of flesh and bones too.

Storming the stage with her skirts in a lather, sharply peering through her eyeglasses and flinging her cape about for emphasis when necessary, Ms. Redgrave's Lady Bracknell exudes determined energy as she manipulates young Gwendolen out of Jack's arms, and Algernon out of Cecily's, before restoring the couples' happy equilibrium when the last of the play's complications has been uncomplicated.

Ms. Redgrave's Lady Bracknell is, in short, slightly tinged with vulgarity. (Gasp!) This is indeed a radical departure for a character who is, on paper, genteel to the point of absurdity, if not insanity. But in Ms. Redgrave's capable hands it brings its own comic rewards.

The Importance of Being Earnest

By Oscar Wilde; directed by Sir Peter Hall; Theater Royal Bath/Peter Hall Company. Producer, Danny Moar for Theater Royal Bath; associate director and producer, Trish Rigdon; production design by Kevin Rigdon and Ms. Rigdon; sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; production stage manager, John McNamara; company manager and assistant stage manager, Brian J. L'Ecuyer. Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Alan H. Fishman, chairman; Karen Brooks Hopkins, president; William I. Campbell, vice chairman; Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, (718) 636-4100. Through May 14. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

WITH: Lynn Redgrave (Lady Bracknell), James A. Stephens (Lane), Robert Petkoff (Algernon Moncrieff), James Waterston (Jack Worthing), Bianca Amato (Gwendolen Fairfax), Miriam Margolyes (Miss Prism), Charlotte Parry (Cecily Cardew), Terence Rigby (the Rev. Canon Chasuble), Geddeth Smith (Merriman) and Greg Felden (Footman).

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