In Wild Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Patrick Gurian and Jeff Haas
At the Currier House Fishbowl
Tonight and tomorrow night at 8:00
The first few lines of the Currier House Drama Society's production of The Importance of Being Earnest are truly horrifying. As Lane (Todd Brun) and Algernon (John Goldstone) begin to converse in what are meant to be highly mannered British accents, insidious comparisons immediately flood the viewer's mind--specifically, endless repetitions of Monty Python, or, perhaps, that particularly ill-starred high-school rendition of My Fair Lady.
Once this initial reaction passes, however, a realization sets in: in this most mannered of British comedies, mannerisms make the man, and it is precisely the manner in which such manners are managed that makes this production a modest success.
In order for this drama of lust and confused identities to work as comedy--in order for each mistaken identity and preposterous coincidence to work, and in order for Wilde's infamous epigrams to strike the proper chord--actors' timing and enunciation must be absolutely flawless. This is where the mannered performances come in. Instead of being annoying, the pseudo-Brit accents tighten the dialogue and actually make each word shimmer.
Unfortunately, only half of the actors slip comfortably into the sharp-edged comedy-of-manners mode, while the others flounder midway between some sort of modern naturalistic something-or-other and a very stilted ultra-Victorian melodramatic bluster.
Falling into the former category are Goldstone and Brun. Goldstone brings to the role of Algernon a languorous drollery that epitomizes the Wildean aesthetic. Brun lets the tiniest hint of whimsy animate his Lane, transforming a minor character into an indispensable one.
Even better is Brun's turn as Dr. Chausable; he employs an entirely different British accent to capture perfectly the character's well-meaning but provincial sobriety as well as his underlying lecherousness. And as society matron Aunt Augusta, Emma Laskin drawls each word with a terrifically contemptuous sneer; she may be the only actor on stage who can not only read a Wilde epigram but can squeeze a laugh out of it as well.
On the flip side, Michael Townley (Jack Worthing) is almost unbearably stiff and stagey. Not only does he stumble over Wilde's (admittedly tricky) cadences, swallowing lines right and left, but he consistently hits the jokes on the off-beat.
While not quite as obtrusive, Emily Cousins' Cecily seems to prove that the soul of country charm is banality; like Townley, she eschews the highly stylized approach and instead disappears behind the more charismatic performers.
The direction of this play is as schizophrenic as the cast's performance. Patrick Gurian and Jeff Hass both try to retain the Victorian sparkle of the comedy by injecting contemporary and meta-dramatic references. Such hi-jinks, however, are sparse and tend to be more distracting than anything else, especially after the actors have kicked into high gear.
What the audience is left with, then, is a few moments of anachronistic mischief, significantly more moments of sparkling dialogue and well-timed comedy, and a lot of dead spots.
Despite the fact that much of it never quite gels, however, The Importance of Being Earnest is worth catching--both as a showcase for several good performances and as an excuse to dust off your own fake accent.