Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest at Lakewood

Éclat, élan, and earnest elegance
by Michael Dresdner

The cast                                                                                                          Photo by Dean Lapin                                  
The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened last night at Lakewood Playhouse, is undoubtedly the best of Oscar Wilde’s biting satires. It is, by any reckoning, an outstanding and completely enjoyable play to watch; flawlessly written, hilarious, and just dripping with those questionable British values Wilde saw as the underbelly of Victorian society, and skewered mercilessly.

I adore this play so much that I watch or read some iteration of it several times each year, both to bolster my own moral turpitude and to remind myself to always keep a sharp tongue in my head.

Or is that civil?

Whatever. The point is that a play of such perfection demands a director and cast equal to its brilliance. That is precisely what director Marilyn Bennett and her superb cast have given to us lucky Lakewood Playhouse patrons; a shiny, perfect apple of a comedy just bursting with juicy delight.

Ah, yes; you need a short synopsis, right? Trust me, it’s the amazing characters and gleefully funny dialog that makes this play, not the plot, but here goes.

Two elegant bachelor pals discover that they both engage in elaborate fictions to allow them to escape societal demands and instead pursue pleasure. They both pine for well-born young ladies, and thanks in part an inexplicable allure of the name, both insist they are called Ernest.

There are some serious obstacles, beyond the obvious fact that neither is actually named Ernest. One yearns for the cousin of the other, who is saddled with a gorgon of a mother blocking the way because of the suitor’s lack of any apparent parentage. The other yearns for the young, pretty ward of the first, but unless both are happily paired, neither will be. A lost cigarette case, a lost satchel, a lost novel, a lost baby, and a once careless former nursemaid help make a complete scramble of this Mexican standoff, but don’t worry. At the end, all is resolved in a comically unlikely manner, and everyone ends up happy.

Now for the good stuff; the lead actors.

The Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax (Deya Ozburn) is the daughter of Lady Bracknell, the inamorata of John Worthing (Bryan K. Bender), and the cousin of Algernon Moncrieff (Andrew Kittrell), who in turn pines for Worthing’s ward, Cecily Cardew (Cassie Jo Fastabend).

Ladies first, gentlemen!

Ozburn is amazing, adroitly donning the imperious, duplicitous mantle of Gwendolen with flawless timing, an unerring balance of coy sweetness and cutting innuendo, and a set of postures and mannerisms that make her the very best Gwendolen I’ve ever seen, on stage or screen. It was an absolutely perfect performance.

Did you catch all that? Good, because I am about to repeat exactly the same thing three more times, for Fastabend’s Cecily, Kittrell’s Algernon, and Bender’s John Worthing. Each actor crafted the epitome of Wilde’s characters with the same flawless timing, balance, delivery, and physical mannerisms.

Fastabend (L) and Ozburn spy on a seated Kittrell                 photo by Dean Lapin
Fastabend gave us a Cecily bursting with both kittenish enthusiasm and womanly wiles, her sweet innocence hiding the razor sharp claws of cutting verbal retort. Kittrell was a joy to watch as the suave, slightly foppish, thoroughly hedonistic Algernon. And last, though anything but least, was Bender, an actor who has consistently created some of the best performances we’ve seen on these local stages (Mozart, Benedick, Macbeth). His John Worthing was simply perfect; the ideal balance of refined, responsible landowner, and earnest, love-struck suitor.

The rest of the cast, Lady Bracknell (Syra Beth Puett), Rev. Chausuble (Aaron J. Schmookler), the butler, Merriman (Tony Onorati), manservant Lane (Michael Sandner), Miss Prism (Lee Ryan) and the housemaid, Felicity (Laura Shearer) are also quite good and definitely hold their own, but the leads set the bar impossibly high, and to be honest, those four love-struck leads both steal and make this show.  

It is a credit to both director and cast that every word, every nuance, and every bitingly funny line was crisp, clear, and perfectly understandable. That should be taken for granted, but becomes a problem surprisingly often. The director’s pacing was so wonderful that the time flew by, and as it should be, we were left wanting more.

Let’s not forget the splendid costumes by the always excellent Alex Lewingon, a cleverly simple set by Robin Dean, Larry Hagerman, and Hally Phillips, lighting by Alex Smith, sound by John Burton, and props by Patrick Casados. And, because they invisibly keep things running like a well-oiled machine, a nod to the stage manager, Kali Raisi.

Even the seating deserves an honorable mention. Lakewood is partway through the process of replacing the seats in the entire theatre, and we had the good fortune to sit in the new ones. They are sinfully luxurious and unjustifiably comfortable. Patron sponsorship is helping to pay for them, so we dutifully “bought” a seat, which will now sport a plaque with our august names engraved on it. Fairly few seats are left unsponsored, so if you want to be a theater immortal, talk to the box office.

The Importance of Being Earnest is the final play of the season, and I can think of no better way to go out in a blaze of glory than with a production that is so superb, so funny, and so thoroughly delightful. Go see it; I can confidently guarantee you an evening of pure, unadulterated pleasure. 

The Importance of Being Earnest
June 14th to July 14th, 2013
Lakewood Playhouse

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