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The Importance of Being Earnest

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde's most famous play for a reason. Its crisp and entertaining use of language and fanciful if not far-fetched premise seem to have popularity and laughter built right into the lines themselves. The new production at the American Globe Theatre lives quite well up to the standards of Wilde's text.

Jack Worthing (David Wilcox) is leading something of a double life. Going by one name, Ernest, in the country and another, Jack, in the city, he has managed to foster two very different sets of relationships. His good friend, Algernon (Peter Parks Husovsky), is bemused with good reason, but cannot resist the opportunity to try a hand at it himself. Though the story of the play revolves around the two men and their escapades both in London and in Jack's country home, neither emerges as the focus of this particular production. That honor is shared by the four women in the cast who, through no fault of their own, steal the show at every turn.

Take, for example, Jack's beloved (in the city, at any rate), Gwendolyn. When the actress playing her, Anna Stone, appears in the door, it is as if you are staring at a great statue that will, if you are lucky, bless you with words. When she speaks in her flawless high British accent, she savors every syllable, yet never misses an ounce of the passion, desperation, or humor the moment may call for. Her country counterpart, Jack's ward Cecily, is played Kathryn Savannah, who makes the difficult work she must be doing to match Stone's regal air look almost effortless. Though Cecily is younger and more bubbly, she seems every bit as real and funny as Gwendolyn. When the two actresses are onstage together, the audience faces two problems: Whom to look at, and how to keep from laughing so hard.

Though their roles are slightly smaller, the other two women also make very strong impressions. Though Julia Levo possibly has the most difficult role to make believable in the addled Miss Prism, she never manages to lose her cool or her matronly nature. As Lady Bracknell, Julia McLaughlin milks every laugh possible from her unique perspective on societal behavior, and commands the stage every time she appears. The way her lips curl around her words is often every bit as funny as the words themselves.

Though Wilcox and Husovsky (and Rick Forstmann as Jack's country butler) do fine with the lines and the dialect, they seem to be missing the upright, almost stiff nature that seems to pervade every phrase, every attitude of Wilde's text. The way the men sit, stand, or behave toward each other physically seems to give their characterizations a feeling of incompleteness. The problem is not completely evident from the beginning, but when Cecily or Gwendolyn speak volumes with the way they hold their parasols, or Lady Bracknell seems to tower over the much taller Jack, you realize what the men provide that most of the men do not. (Of the men, only Rick Forstmann, as Jack's butler in the city and the country doctor, achieves this.)

Despite this problem, the direction, by Nathaniel Merchant, is always sharp, highlighting the jokes well, keeping the story in focus and moving at a fast pace. J. Reid Farrington and Morgan von Prelle Pecelli designed both the lights and the set for this production, and both elements are modest, but effective. Melissa C. Richard's clever, colorful costumes seem to belong only to these characters, and define each perfectly.

For over 100 years, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest has entertained audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Though this new production is good regardless, its new spin is a delightful and unexpected addition. Have you ever found yourself wondering why, in some plays, the men fall in love with the women they do? In the American Globe Theatre's production, you will never wonder for a moment.

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The American Globe Theatre
The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
American Globe Theatre
145 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Through April 10
Tickets: All seats $15.00
Reservations: (212) 869-9809