Theater Review: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

December 1, 2017
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The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, directed by Michael Cumpsty, is presented by the Two River Theatre Company. Photos courtesy T. Charles Erickson Photography

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen |

It’s always amazed me how insults delivered with an upper-class English accent don’t sound so harsh.

For instance, “I never saw anybody take so long to dress, and with such little result,” which appears in Act II of the comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.

Yes, Wilde was Irish, not English, and not upper class. As one of the best-known personalities of his day and one of the greatest wits of all time, his words held up a mirror to the rigid and, at times, severe class system of late Victorian England while writing one of the funniest plays ever.

A most desired guest in upper-class London homes, he repaid his hosts with plays they loved that made fun of them.

First performed in1895 in both London and Manhattan, “Earnest” last was revived on Broadway in 2011. It’s current staging at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank reinforces why audiences love this 122-year-old comedy of manners — it’s perfect.

John “Jack” Worthing (Federico Rodriguez) is wealthy and in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (Rosa Gilmore), who also comes from money.

Algernon Moncrieff (Sam Lilja) has no money but in that inimitable English way, is able to employ a devoted but snarky manservant named Lane (Henry Vick). In Act II, he meets and immediately falls in love with Cecily Cardew (Liesel Allen Yeager), who is rich. She also is his best friend Jack’s secret 18-year-old ward.

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Lady Bracknell, sometimes played by a man these days but here is marvelously portrayed with severe Victorian rigidness and hypocrisy by a woman, Randy Danson. She enters a room like a tsunami and immediately takes control of all conversation.

Federico Rodriguez (John Worthing) and Rosa Gilmore (Gwendolen Fairfax).

Upon learning daughter Gwendolen has agreed to marry Jack proclaims, “When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.”

And during the conversation about his suitability to marry into her family she discovers that Jack may be rich but is wholly unsuited as a son-in-law because he is an orphan of unknown decent, and notes: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

The actors playing the young lovers seemed less relaxed in their roles on opening night than I expect they will be with a few more performances under their belts.

The cast also includes Mahira Kakkar as Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor and companion who unknowingly holds the key that unlocks a mystery, all of which she does with aplomb.

Chris Kipiniak as the Rev. Canon Chasuble, who quietly favors Miss Prism, and Bob Mackasek as Merriman, Jack’s butler in the country, round out the cast.

Under the direction of Michael Cumpsty, a Two River regular known mostly for his acting — which he does extremely well on stage, screen and TV — has delivered an excellent production of “Earnest,” with the subtitle “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.”

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Aiding him in creating the delightful look of this well done three-act production with three different sets is scenic designer Charlie Corcoran. The opening night audience applauded the Act III set — the drawing room at the Manor House in Woolton — as it richly deserved.

The exquisite costumes by Jess Goldstein, particularly Gwendolen’s dresses, are superior. Yuki Nakase lighting design enhanced the sets. Loved the twittering birds in the garden scene from sound designer Elisheba Ittoop.

The irony of this comic masterpiece is that the same year “Earnest” debuted Wilde was jailed for gross indecency for having a sexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensberry, and sent to jail for two years, effectively ending his career. He died destitute five years later at age 46.

Journalist Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen’s theater news and reviews can be found on TheaterCues.com.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” continues Wednesdays through Sundays through Dec. 3 at the Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank. For tickets or more information, call 732-345-1400 or e-mail boxoffice@trtc.org.


This article was first published in the Nov. 30-Dec. 7, 2017 print edition of the Two River Times.

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