Acting in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is no easy task. Somehow the performer has to convince the audience that a mouthful of aphorisms is normal, that dazzling repartee is second nature, and that the most brilliant paradoxes are no harder to articulate than "Hello" and "Goodbye." Wilde's characters are never at a loss for wit; it flows from them effortlessly, off-handedly, without fanfare. And that's what's needed from the performer in Earnest: a facility that makes the unnatural natural. These characters may enjoy their language, but only as much as a good brandy or a fine cigar. Anything more and the dialogue turns into speechifying. Anything more and we're auditors at a reading of "Great Books."
Alas, the two main actors in American Stage's current Earnest — Matthew McIver as Algernon Moncrieff and Christopher Swan as Jack Worthing — seem always to be conscious of the dazzle in their language, and thus never convince us of its, or their, reality. As directed by Jay Berkow, McIver and Swan loudly declaim their lines as if everything were italicized and in capital letters. As if this weren't problem enough, most of the other actors turn in one-dimensional performances, striking a certain note when we first meet them and staying at that pitch all the way to the final curtain. True, there is one performance — Mark Chambers as Lady Bracknell — that has depth and complexity, but it's not enough to redeem a largely disappointing experience. Earnest may be one of the glories of the English-speaking stage, but you'd never guess it from watching this noisy cartoon.
You probably remember the play's famous plot. Jack Worthing is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax and asks her to marry him. Gwendolen is willing, but her mother, Lady Bracknell, insists on interrogating her prospective son-in-law. When she discovers that he has no parents — as a baby, he was discovered in a handbag in Victoria Station — she rules out a wedding.
Meanwhile Jack's good friend Algernon is in love with young Cecily Cardew. Passing himself off as Jack's brother, he asks her to marry him — but Jack, who's Cecily's guardian, refuses to grant permission. Meanwhile both women are sworn to marry only men named Ernest — not Jack or Algernon. After a series of confusions involving false identities, the main characters converge at Jack and Cecily's manor house, where all lies are exposed and all problems are merrily solved.
Done well, it's a hilarious romp on the subject of Victorian hypocrisy and the institution of marriage. (Interesting that there are so many jibes at marriage in a play about two couples who desperately want to wear gold bands.) Done not so well, it comes off as phony and shrill. And the problem isn't just McIver and Swan. Joleen Wilkinson as Gwendolen never shows us more than a certain coyness; Lee Fitzpatrick as Cecily is never anything but ebullient; and Bonita Agan as Miss Prism, while occasionally persuasive, just as often strikes a pose and makes us lose our credulity.
The great exception in this production is Chambers' Lady Bracknell — a caricature, but one rich in careful detail. Now dressed in garish blue, now in gaudy red, Chambers carries his considerable bulk with the utmost solemnity, as if painfully weighed down by his own self-importance. There's an element of self-parody here, but it's not out of place. This is a memorable, well-crafted, very funny portrayal.
More problematic is Dean Wick's Act One set, which looks more like a student's underfurnished dorm room than an aristocrat's apartment. A few mismatched rugs on the floor, some pillows tossed around a post, some small abstract paintings and amateurish nudes on the walls are (I think) supposed to inform us that this Earnest has been updated to the 1920s.
In fact, the place just looks unkempt and in need of a decorator. The second act outdoor set, though, is beautiful: now the sky-blue walls make sense, and the green bushes and many flowers are a visual treat. And there's nothing wrong with Yoshi Tanokura's period costumes or Joseph P. Oshry's lighting. As for Jay Berkow's direction, well, there's just too little evidence that he's found a style that works for Wilde or for the audience. And strategies like having his actors break into dance at the slightest provocation don't really illuminate anything.
In Earnest, as in most plays, credibility matters. We have to believe in these constantly witty characters, not just overhear their wordplay.
This American Stage production lacks human truth.
And what's left is a company of scintillating puppets.
Sharp as a Fundraiser. If you want to make a contribution to the local theater scene, you could always buy a ticket to "An Affaire of the Heart," the annual fundraiser for Stageworks.
The event will be held this year at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Don Vicente Hotel in Ybor City. It will include a performance by Ann Morrison, whose acting credits include Broadway, Off-Broadway, Asolo Theatre and American Stage's Shakespeare in the Park. There will also be a silent auction, including original artwork, dinners, spa treatments and other items suitable for Valentine's Day gifts.
Tickets cost $30 to $60 per person. The $30 ticket includes admission plus a complimentary drink; $60 ticket includes admission, two complimentary drinks and acknowledgement in the event program. Hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar will also be available.
Stageworks was first formed by Producing Director Anna Brennen in 1983. In two decades, it has brought some terrific productions to the Tampa Bay area — Uncle Vanya, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Laramie Project and Waiting for Godot among them. It's often hard to operate on a small budget, so a fundraiser like this one can make a real difference.
The Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn is located at 1915 Republica de Cuba (Ninth Avenue at 14th Street) in Ybor City. For tickets or more information, call 813-251-8984.