Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
There’s a reason why The Importance of Being Earnest endures. Oscar Wilde’s 1895 farce about Victorian manners and polite society is funny – and so is the production that opened Thursday (Jan. 26) at the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott.
The actors use believable accents, and the physicality, facial expressions, blocking, pregnant pauses and character business, under the direction of Tom Kremer, all work to keep up the play’s engaging and entertaining pace.
There are two large scene changes to showcase two Victorian interiors and one beautifully shaded garden exterior, designed by Paul M. Raddassao. The shifts are executed during two 10-minute intermissions by AmarA*jk, the design team in residence at the Tri-Cities Opera and Ithaca Shakespeare. (I know, right!? This kind of collaboration is great.)
The action of the play follows the antics of two jolly fellows, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, who have little to do but fill their days with social engagements here and there … except for the ones they scheme to get out of. They do that with the help of imaginary friends and relatives who are always sick or dying. What a great idea!
When these gentlemen decide it’s time to zero in on the ladies they hope to engage for their future happiness, it isn’t altogether clear they’ll succeed. The men have the insuperable (I love that word!) barrier of not having been called “Ernest” upon their birth, and that’s the name both women absolutely require for their chosen companions.
In an effort to acquire that name (which the women already believe they have), the men get themselves in some mildly hilarious entanglements involving Jack’s nubile ward, Cecily Cardew; her governess, Miss Prism; a country vicar, Dr. Chasuble; the formidable Lady Bracknell, and her daughter, Miss Gwendolyn Fairfax.
The rascal Algernon is played by Jake Wentlent, whom you may have seen as the wildly uninhibited Spike in last year’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He is a little less randy in Wilde’s comedy, but he gets to wear better costumes (thank you, Jana Kucera and Sarah Bechtel).
The comic timing of Wentlent and Actors’ Equity candidate James Taylor Odom — the handsome and dapper Jack – -is razor sharp. The two of them carry the entire first act until the late arrival of Lady Bracknell and Gwendolyn (Carol Hanscom and Rachel Towne, respectively).
Those two ladies add another rich layer of humor as mother and daughter, although veteran Equity actor Hanscom may have been recovering from laryngitis. If she felt as sick as she sounded, I commend her for soldiering on. I hope she gets her voice back in its entirety by the second weekend.
Towne’s Gwendolyn is graceful and adequately snobbish, especially when she and Cecily meet for the first time at Worthing’s country estate. We believe Gwendolyn when she says she wishes her fiancé’s young ward were twice as old and only half as alluring as she actually is.
But Anna Simek, who plays the bored young lady with an active imagination, is young and attractive and enjoys the part. You’ve seen her at the Cider Mill Playhouse in other supporting roles. In Earnest, she gets some significant stage time. The early jealousy between her and Towne makes for some funny moments.
Heidi Weeks, a familiar face in theater around the region, plays the coolly frustrated spinster, Miss Prism. When the country vicar arrives, or even is mentioned, Prism seems to be on the verge of tossing aside her spectacles and serviceable bun for him. She sparkles as his fawning admirer, although she never lets us forget the social conventions that must rein her in. But have they always?
We saw Weeks unleashed as Masha in Vanya, opposite Wentlent’s Spike, so this is an interesting contrast. Tom Byrn’s stuffy portrayal of the Rev. Dr. Chasuble is funny, but I think he may have glossed over one or two of the character’s funniest line, playing Chasuble perhaps a little straighter than he could have considering the absurdity of the character. Some of the lines about him are funnier than the ones he gets to deliver.
Wilde was clearly not in awe of the righteousness and “moral squint” of the country clergyman. (Thank you, contemporary playwright Robert Bolt, for that phrase.) But Byrn carries the canon as well as, or better than, could be expected of a character named for an Anglican church vestment. I love the silliness of that.
One of the best roles in this play is actually two … that of the two butlers, often played by the same actor. Director Kremer is perfect as both the Jeeves-like Lane in town and old Merriman in the country. It takes a lot of skill to shake a tea service like the ancient Merriman and not spill a drop.
Almost all of the characters in this play have active imaginations which belie what they really want or need. They all need to learn the importance of being earnest. Who doesn’t?
IF YOU GO: Performances of this worthwhile production continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 12 at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. To reserve tickets, call 748-7363 or visit www.cidermillplayhouse.org.
A quick update on the Playhouse’s future
As you probably know, the Cider Mill Playhouse will be ending its relationship with the Cider Mill in Endicott at the end of the current season. There are only three more mainstage productions between now and August — The Drowsy Chaperone, Peter and the Starcatcher and Pump Boys and Dinettes – before the company, under the leadership of Artistic Director Gail King Belokur, will have to move.
Given this fact, I was surprised and sorry to see only the two center sections of the house occupied during the Friday (Jan. 27) performance of the show’s opening weekend.
Note, however, that ticket sales are not the only way to help the company keep the lights on and pay its blend of union and non-union actors. A wooden apple in the lobby by shows the progress of the most recent fund-raising efforts and proudly displays the contributions received to date, including a matching grant from the Klee Foundation. You also can keep track of progress on the Playhouse’s web site.
The Playhouse has met the first goal of its fundraising timetable — $100,000 by the end of 2016 – and is targeting $200,000 by March 1. If that goal is reached, the Playhouse will be in a good position to make a down payment on a new home. In the meantime, you can still enjoy a good show at its current one.
Coming up: A concert version of South Pacific, featuring Shannon and Jan DeAngelo, will be presented at the Playhouse Feb. 17-19. It is a joint benefit for the Playhouse and the Jewish Community Center in Vestal.