Not So Trivial Pursuit

Review of The Importance of Being Earnest at Playhouse on Park

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of the Being Earnest is a play that, in a sense, can’t go wrong, so long as its lines are audible. The sparkle isn’t only in Wilde’s famed witty apothegms, but in his handling of dialogue—the come-back that seems a non-sequitur, and vice versa, the aside spoken to someone, the bandying with another’s words to arrive at a different meaning. All this is so consummate, its style established an ideal of comic dialogue that most can only approximate. Faithfulness to Wilde’s brand of comedy, it seems to me, is a matter of not letting anything upstage the spoken lines, even as each character must maintain a fidelity to type without seeming too familiar.

The current production at Playhouse on Park in Hartford, directed by Jerry Winters, acquits itself handsomely on all those points. The playing space is thrust-style and intimate, and the blocking very capably makes use of all corners and angles so that every viewpoint, at some point, is faced with the central action. And since the action consists almost wholly of dialogue, its quite a nice balletic feat to have the talk move about, collecting and coalescing in different spots with the refreshing flow of natural movement. Christopher Hoyt’s scenic design plays well with symmetries that can be shifted about when necessary to suggest, visually, what the plot is getting at through the logic of courtship: we change partners, we change our “identities” to some extent, we alter where we alteration find. Same for the assurance of Joel Abbott’s able sound design: if the shifts sag, if the bon mots fall unheard, we’ll nod off or escape. Crispness is all, and this production has that.

 Lady Bracknell (Katrina Ferguson)

Lady Bracknell (Katrina Ferguson)

Centering the action, in the supporting role that ruins all if not up to the mark, is Katrina Ferguson’s Lady Bracknell. She is the character who sets the tone, and holds everyone else to account. Ferguson is never petty or petulant, a Bracknell always more than equal to whatever comes down the pike. She is wry and resourceful and very much an asset to this production. As are the friends turned “Ernest,” James Parenti as Algernon and Michael Raver as Jack. They look impeccable and sound and move equally well in Erin Payne’s becoming costumes.

Raver, as the hero of the piece, is well-meaning and good-looking and full of a kind of “everyman” charm, able to be relentlessly affable and to rise to a peak of emotion when his fate is being decided. Parenti has an appearance of settled deviousness about him that adds greatly to the charm of the “bunburying” that is the dominant mode of the play. Wilde's assumption—and it is shared by Algernon—is that all of us play at something so as to conceal what we are really about, creating distractions or excuses so as to divert our onlookers. Jack, early caught in a version of the same ruse, feels guilty about it and has moral scruples. Algernon teaches Jack that his friend's “bunburying”—e.g., Jack’s fictitious brother—can be turned to his own profit.

The “earnestness” of all this comes down to Jack, who truly wants to marry Gwendolen (played with warm graciousness by Jane Bradley), and truly wants to stay in good graces with her mother, Lady Bracknell, as well as doing right by his ward, Cecily (played with pert insistence by Laura Hankin), while also having a certain free space to do as he pleases. Algernon, who is all for the free space and nothing but, initially, becomes “earnest” in his own right when he encounters the sweetly certain simplicity of Cecily. While not exactly rivals, Jack and Algy are brilliantly put into rivalry over a name: the claim to being called Ernest.

 Gwendolen (Jane Bradley), Jack (Michael Raver), Cecily (Laura Hankin), Lady Bracknell (Katrina Ferguson), Algernon (James Parenti)

Gwendolen (Jane Bradley), Jack (Michael Raver), Cecily (Laura Hankin), Lady Bracknell (Katrina Ferguson), Algernon (James Parenti)

Wilde subtitles the play “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” alluding to the notion that nothing of importance—other than “being earnest”—is decided in the play. It is, delightfully, much ado about nothing, and yet the play might equally be subtitled “a serious comedy for trivial people” since much of what we get so serious about—our betrotheds and beloveds and espouseds, for instance—can seem trivial indeed to someone else. Love is as serious as life and death to those afflicted by it, and airy and insubstantial as the most trivial social nicety to those blithely untouched by it. Lady Bracknell is on hand to make certain that the trivial aspects of choosing a spouse—what we call the personal—do not interfere with the serious aspects, which is to say the social and, indeed, economic. All’s well that ends well-off, and that’s as it should be, for comedy. And for reversal, there’s the deft touch of a baby in a hand-bag to wink at the humble origins of many a hero.

In support there are many fine turns: the face-off between Gwendolen and Cecily, particularly, where good will, rivalry, and nastiness get coated with faultless manners; the wishing-to-please obtuseness of Dr. Chasuble (David M. Farrington) and the earnest accounting by Miss Prism (Donna Schilke); and don’t forget the laughs added by the slacking lackey Merriman (Harrison Greene).

The Importance of Being Earnest might too easily be considered style over substance, and Playhouse on Park’s production has style substantial enough to make the play shine—and that’s not trivial.

The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Jerry Winters

Scenic Designer: Christopher Hoyt; Lighting Designer: Christopher Jones; Costume Designer: Erin Payne; Prop Master: Pamela Lang; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott

Playhouse on Park
West Hartford, April 15-May 3, 2015