Backstage: In ‘Earnest,’ it’s important to come to work hungry

February 4

Let’s talk, for a moment, about the importance of eating in “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Oscar Wilde’s tea-parlor comedy is onstage at the Shakespeare Theatre, and by the time its extended run is over on March 9, actor Anthony Roach will have been eating five blueberry muffin halves a day — or 10 on days with matinees — for eight weeks.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to eat a blueberry muffin again after I’m done with this,” he said.

Before being cast in “Earnest,” Roach’s tea-drinking consisted of herbal remedies to sooth an occasional sore throat. Now, he knows how to delicately drop in a cube and to always rinse his cup before getting a refill. But even as Roach and his co-star Gregory Wooddell go through the motions of pouring a proper cup, they are stuffing their faces, and that’s a paradox that the actors are playing up in this production.

Act I is set in the posh London flat owned by Roach’s well-to-do character Algernon Moncreiff. He’s preparing to host his aunt for tea and orders a tray of cucumber sandwiches especially for her. Then his pal Earnest stops by, and the two men proceed to devour all the finger food before she arrives.


Anthony Roach as Algernon in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” directed by Keith Baxter. (Scott Suchman)

“They are actual cucumber sandwiches, made of Wonder bread and very thin cucumber slices, and rolled out very flat,” said Roach, who is normally partial to whole grains. “I cannot tell you when the last time was that I ate white bread before this.”

He asked the stage crew to add “a bit of lubrication” to the sandwiches, and they did, although he doesn’t know exactly what. One night last week, for some reason, the sandwiches were more brittle than usual. One broke in half and fell to the stage.

“I wasn’t sure what to do,” Roach recalled. “I couldn’t put it back on the tray, because the sandwiches have to all be gone by the time Lady Bracknell arrives. There wasn’t a trash can, so I made the split-second decision to pick it up and put it my mouth. That night, the audience got a little extra subtext.”

Like, Algernon believes in the five-second rule. And he really, really likes those cucumber sandwiches.

In Act II, it’s blueberry muffins that Roach and Wooddell are gorging themselves on. Or appear to be. The goal, in rehearsal, was figuring out how few muffins they could eat while still appearing to have no self control. “My script has all these places where I’ve written, ‘Muffin?,’ ” Roach said. Director Keith Baxter settled on Roach eating five, and Wooddell two, for a total of seven. But again, there have been mishaps. At one preview performance, Roach put his first muffin in his mouth and instead of the normal, crumbly goodness, “The muffin had the texture of fast-mix concrete. I knew I had to eat five of them, and I didn’t know how I was going to get through my lines.”

Turns out, the stage crew had tried substituting sugar-free muffins, but the lower-calorie option was much harder to chew. “I’ve gotten very accustomed to the squirrel technique — of stuffing the muffins in my cheeks — but these just didn’t work.”

He politely asked the stage manager to never buy sugar-free muffins again.


Actor Luke Smith stars in the Kennedy Center production of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” (Ian Stuart)

As in Act I, there’s an actual plot point forwarded by the characters’ overindulgence: The two men are fighting over whether Algernon can marry Earnest’s ward, Cecily, but the debate dissolves into a spat over who ate all the muffins, wherein the men holler at each other with their mouths full.

“It’s such a childish argument that they are having,” Roach said. “When [Wooddell] yells at me for eating the muffins, I wish I could retort, ‘But you had two!’ Unfortunately, Mr. Wilde did not write that line for me.”

A homecoming of sorts

There is also a food-obsessed young Brit in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” now onstage at the Kennedy Center: Annapolis native Luke Smith has been cast as guy wearing a coconut shell bra rather than the kid always carrying around a pineapple. Which is fine with him. When Luke came out onstage opening night, he was jittery, although not because his mother was about to see him wear a very goofy bustier.

“I was more nervous than I’ve been on any other stop on the tour,” Smith said. “I’m very much aware of the theater culture here.”

Smith was active in the music program at the Key School in Annapolis. His plan was to study musical theater at NYU, but the bright lights of the big city got a bit overwhelming. He came home to refocus, but his parents, Joel Smith and Teresa Brady, had moved to Capitol Hill. He started taking acting classes at the Studio Theatre and plugged into the local theater scene. He landed roles at Olney and was a swing in two musicals at Signature. Those were fun, but the most fortuitous gig turned out to be a community theater production of “Children of Eden,” directed by veteran Washington actor Bobby Smith.

“His class made me look at acting more seriously,” Smith said. “Not to imply that I didn’t take it seriously, but he taught me the importance of preparing to embody a character.”

At the end of the run, Smith realized he was ready to go back to school, but decided that this time, he would head south and focus on acting. He enrolled in the University of North Carolina School for the Arts in Winston-Salem.

“I had gotten used to New York being my backdrop for college, but [at UNC] the training is so rigorous, that you really don’t have time to do much besides study. It forced me to ground down.”

Since graduating in 2011, he’s been working steadily with roles off-Broadway and at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre. The Broadway tour of “Starcatcher” is his big break. The play with music is a prequel to “Peter Pan,” reimagined as a low-budget physical comedy. Rehearsals began with 30 minutes of cross-training.

“My legs have never been as strong as this in my life,” Smith said. He plays Captain Hook’s sidekick Smee, who is typically portrayed as older and rather portly. Not so in “Starcatcher.” Smith has to carry several other cast members on his back, and warms up before each show by doing yoga and push-ups. The hard work keeps his body beach-ready: At the start of Act 2, when the cast has been marooned on a tropical island, he strolls out singing a little ditty and strumming a ukulele while wearing that coconut bustier. A dozen other cast members, all wearing faux-bras made from various fruits and household items, soon join him onstage. They look utterly ridiculous.

“There is not a diva in the cast,” he said.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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