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Theater Review (NYC): The Importance of Being Earnest at The Counting Squares Theatre – A Beguiling Wilde

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In the two decades that Irish theatre has engaged me, I have seen many of Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknells. Double digits to be sure. More Bracknells than Wilde's bon mots? Not quite, but many. One standout in my age-fogged brain is Lynn Redgrave for being able to project authority and displeasure throughout the cavernous Harvey Hall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Another wonderful Bracknell, really the top of the list, was Nancy Marchand. She made her Bracknell into someone with absolute dominion, next to whom Livia Soprano was a pushover. I cannot hear "Prism! Where is that baby?" without a delighted shiver and a thought about Nancy Marchand.

Last night, at the Counting Squares Production of The Importance of Being Earnest, I added another Lady Bracknell to my Best of Bracknell list. Although the production on the whole veers toward slapstick, sacrificing the compulsory seriousness of the comedy (it is, after all, the importance of being earnest), this Earnest is thoroughly enjoyable, and Haas Regen's Lady Bracknell makes it even more so.

Mr. Regen, who apparently went to the Dame Edith Evans Acting School for this role, is unconditionally and perfectly resolute. His humorlessness adds to the humor of a play the New York Times deemed the greatest comedy of the last millennium. He is emotionless when all around are swirling in inappropriate (by Victorian standards) emotions. Mr. Regen captures the Wilde masterpiece in toto (mercifully there are no drag jokes here) – a Gorgon wearing a lovely 'ladies who lunch' suit.

The cross-gendered Lady Bracknell is not without precedent. This past summer, Brian Bedford played the role, and it was not the first time a male Lady Bracknell held court at the Stratford Theatre Festival. In fact, controversial social critic Camille Paglia called for all the female roles in Earnest to be played by men in order to better illustrate the duality of the characters – Jack/Earnest Worthing, Algernon Montcrieff/Earnest Worthing, and Cecily, who may be the aunt or she may be a niece. Even Lady Bracknell is not who she seems. She has all the imperiousness of old money, and it comes as a surprise that she made her own fortune with her marriage.

But back to Bracknell: the character's sexuality is the least of her attributes; it matters not the gender of the actor. All that matters is decorum.

From the opening scene, when Algernon (Ryan Nicholoff, below) plays his electric guitar with great distortion, and his butler Lane deems it "impolite to listen," it is apparent that this is a different Earnest. The dress is modern, the allusions local, and the geographical detail loaded with parochial significance. The Worthing Estate might be in Westchester; it might be in the Hamptons. New Yorkers know the status difference between those two locales as well as Wilde's audience knew and appreciated the implications of Shropshire and Hertfordshire.

Jacques Roy, as Jack Worthing, begins the evening as a master of the universe. The role descends into farce. It is more Ben Stiller meeting some parents than the stuff of Victorian raised eyebrows. Ryan Nicholoff plays his character, Algernon Montcrieff, quite broadly as well. Algy has all the best lines; he doesn't have to work so hard for the laughs.

It is a shame that using modern dress deprives the audience of one of the greatest jokes in The Importance of Being Earnest – the entrance of Jack Worthing in full mourning costume. His bereavement at the death of his brother, who doesn't exist but manages to materialize in the next room, is the height of absurdity. It marks the moment where the centers of the friends' duplicitous lives cannot hold, and everything spirals out of control. It is a small point, but a fascinating one. What to do about the mourning costume?

There are missteps in the characterizations of the governess Miss Prism (Edward Davis) and the local minister Canon Chausable (Matt Greenbaum). Miss Prism's character has too much confidence, too much strength to be the crack in the foundation of all these pretty manners.  Miss Prism should be all efficiency and attitude with her pupil, and all inefficiency and self-doubt with her peers and employers. She is a weak-minded person. Keep in mind her definition of what fiction is: "good people ending happily, bad ending unhappily."  This, along with her literary output – the three volume novel – is a not-too-subtle jab by Wilde at his literary contemporaries. Miss Prism, although allowed to have a happy ending, is not an admirable character. As for Canon Chausable,  there was altogether too much inexplicable shouting. Lines are not funnier for being louder.

Re-reading the above, I sound like a really cranky critic. It's just a matter of being cruel to be kind; after all, we live "in an age of ideals…All the more expensive monthly magazines" say so. 

A not to be missed highlight of this Earnest is the inclusion of the famously rare "Gribsby scene," one that most productions leave out.  Oscar Wilde had been persuaded to edit out the scene for brevity's sake. it was delightful to see Gribsby, not only because of the scene's infrequency, but because it gives us the chance to spend more time with these characters. This is not always the feeling I have at the theatre.  I applaud the inclusion of the scene. There is a delicious irony in Algernon being presented with a restaurant bill run up by Jack Worthing to prove the existence of his brother Ernest. Algernon, donning the identity of Ernest, then becomes the debtor. With the persona comes the dues.

Appropriately, Jack clearly resents being forced to pay his brother's debts which are really his own. Paying his own debts helps his once-friend, now rival Algy in Algy's cause célèbre – being the real Ernest Worthing.

Tiffany Baker is an ebullient Cecily Cardew, ebullience tempered with petulance – not an easy balance to strike. This Cecily strikes many poses, trying on her many identities.

One of my favorite performances of the night was Madeleine Maby's as Gwendolyn Fairfax. Sometimes this character can get lost between the strength of her mother, Lady Bracknell, the antics of her betrothed, Jack Worthing, and the wit of her cousin, Algernon. Among so many swirling personalities, poor Gwendolyn can disappear, but Ms. Maby commanded her place. So much so that you knew that she would indeed be fated to be like her mother some day. That is her tragedy.

Directed by Jordan Reeves, this Importance of Being Earnest is very clever. But to paraphrase Oscar, I'm sick to death of clever Earnests. They are all clever. That's how the great writer made them. It's just as important to be energetic, funny, and relevant to the contemporary audience. The Counting Squares production was just that – a vital Importance of Being Earnest.

Counting Squares Theatre presents The Importance of Being Earnest at Under St. Mark's through November 22nd.

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About Kate Shea Kennon