The Importance of Being Earnest

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Editorial Review

Arena's 'Earnest,' More Wild Than Wilde
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2004; Page C01

When Lady Bracknell is drowned out by the loudness of her own costumes, you know something's seriously ailing "The Importance of Being Earnest." Really, the abominable outfits that designer Zack Brown created for actress Claudia Robinson -- garish purple and orange getups with outlandish beads and bunting -- are so out of character that you imagine Lady Bracknell not as a hilarious tornado of bons mots in Oscar Wilde's peerless comedy but as a hapless candidate for an episode of "What Not to Wear."

It feels like wholesale sabotage: In her clownish attire, Robinson never stands a chance. Not that the broadly comic portrayal as a whole helps much in this misconceived revival from Arena Stage. Whenever Robinson's Bracknell plants herself on a sofa, she wiggles her bottom as if she were adjusting herself on a nest of eggs. This would have been a fine bit of shtick for a female comedian with a Tarzan yell or a penchant for costumes with curtain-rod shoulders.

But Lady Bracknell is supposed to be a kind of enforcement officer for the snob set. The extremity of her devotion to the dictates of style and breeding would make Audrey Hepburn seem a mere cut above the guys on "Jackass." "Come, dear," Lady Bracknell says to her daughter Gwendolen. "We have already missed five if not six trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform." Given this Lady Bracknell's fashion sense, the comments she should worry about have nothing to do with tardiness.

Yes, some of those priceless Wildean ripostes still land on the Fichandler Stage as the play works its way through a silly plot of mistaken and assumed identity, most of it a mere excuse for lines such as "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." (Wilde's best lines are indeed indestructible.) And some of the performances -- most notably Ian Kahn's Algernon Moncrieff and Hugh Nees's Merriman the butler -- are buoyant enough to sustain the frothiness. Yet these are the exceptions in a wobbly evening that does substantial disservice to one of the great comedies of all time.

The miscalculation seems to have been setting director Everett Quinton loose on Wilde. As he proved time and again over the years in New York with the camp oeuvre of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Quinton has a sublime eye for parody. His revival several years ago of Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep," a merrily tacky melodrama, was one prime example, and the goal at Arena may have been an attempt at Wilde with a contemporary zaniness.

This approach simply does not match the play's finer feel. Subtlety has never been Quinton's strong suit. The requirements of sophisticated drawing room comedy elude him. The whole production tugs too forcefully on Wilde's language; the actors pull on the play as if it were taffy. What results is something severely misshapen.

It serves no useful purpose to add Bugs Bunnyish sight gags and sound effects to "The Importance of Being Earnest." At the outset of the second of the play's three acts, Quinton has, as Wilde calls for, the dewy Cecily (Tymberlee Chanel) watering the garden. Still, he can't resist his own superfluous jokiness. The flowers respond as if doused with a performance-enhanced form of Miracle-Gro, and their sudden spurts are choreographed to a slide whistle. Stunt casting can sometimes shed new light on a frequently performed classic -- years ago I sat through a sweet all-male "Earnest" -- but it feels intrusive when it's applied as oddly as it is here: the Rev. Canon Chasuble is played by an actress (MaryBeth Wise) in mannish voice and haircut. The suggestion is of a lesbian affair with Miss Prism (Helen Hedman), and it illuminates nothing.

Brown's sets for Algernon's city flat and the country house of his snooty friend Jack Worthing (Michael Skinner) make fine use of the Fichandler. While fashion mavens of the 1890s would have had to turn up their noses at the way he gussies up Lady Bracknell, they'd be hard-pressed to find fault with his smashing aquamarine dress for Susan Lynskey's Gwendolen, the single best costume of the nascent theater season. The wonder is how something so right came to be in such close contact with other things so wrong.

Kahn's Algernon wins Best in Show; Kahn understands Wilde's gleefully refined intent, and he responds in kind. Skinner's Jack, on the other hand, is nothing like the prig of Wilde's script, and the actor makes the mistake of trying to compete with Kahn for laughs. Lynskey and Chanel are fetching actresses, but the portrayal of the clenched-teeth rivalry of Gwendolen and Cecily is lackluster. Hedman and Wise push and push to the point of ludicrous caricature. Nees, doubling as the butlers for both Algernon and Jack, comes up with some funny business for Merriman, making his entrances not with a knock but with a cough.

It's a dire sign, though, when Wilde has to rely on coughs for laughs. "Style," Lady Bracknell remarks dryly, "largely depends on the way the chin is worn." The sad reality of Arena's "Earnest" is that it has practically no chin at all.

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Everett Quinton. Sets and costumes, Zack Brown; lighting, Brian H. Scott; sound, Timothy M. Thompson; vocal consultant, Lynn Watson. Approximately three hours. Through Dec. 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.