Lynn Redgrave Shows the Way in Paper Mill Earnest
Also see Bob's review of Mrs. Warren's Profession
The front page of the program for the new Paper Mill Playhouse production unconventionally reads "Lynn Redgrave Starring in The Importance of Being Earnest." Unconventionality notwithstanding, such billing proves appropriate as it is the performance of Ms. Redgrave as Lady Bracknell which almost singlehandedly brings this Earnest across the finish line.
By inventing and then disporting himself as Ernest, his fictitious younger brother, Jack Worthing is free to lark about 1895 London without endangering his good reputation. After all, Jack is responsible for the care of his ward Cecily who resides at his country estate. Jack, while in the guise of Ernest, has fallen in love with and is proposing marriage to the willing Gwendolyn, daughter of the snooty Lady Bracknell and niece to his best friend, Algernon Moncrieff. Algernon, who has just learned of Jack's deception, journeys to Jack's country estate where he introduces himself to Cecily as Jack's fictional brother, Ernest. This is the set up for The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde's brilliant and hilarious satire on the hypocrisy of Victorian society.
In view of the wonderful material with which he has to work, it is staggering to observe the appalling lack of faith which director David Schweizer displays. Schweizer undermines Wilde at every turn. It is hard to imagine a production of Earnest which would work so hard to distract an audience from the play.
Annika Boras, Wayne Wilcox, Lynn Redgrave, Cynthia Mace
The distractions start before we are all seated. There is a theatre box built high up into a black drop which occupies the area between the theatre proscenium and a false proscenium behind and within it. There are green carnations on its ledge. Actor Chris Spencer Wells portraying Oscar Wilde enters the box about five minutes before the scheduled curtain, looks at his program, clutches a handkerchief, and smiles and waves at members of the audience. Having observed the role of Wilde listed in my program, I was intrigued as to how he would be written into the presentation. Well, in his only spoken dialogue of the evening, Wilde shortly announces that management has asked him to announce that "you silence all electronic devices, and cell phones (whatever they are)." He concludes by thanking the firm which has underwritten the production. Wells will return to the box thrice more. A minute or so prior to the intermission (as Wilde) for the apparent purpose of distracting us from following the mid second act events which precede the lone intermission in the three act production; early in the second act dressed for one of his brace of butler roles (please don't ask me what Schweizer has in mind); and, again as Wilde, several minutes before the final curtain.
Why harp on this bit of juvenilia? The reason is that it is emblematic of Schweizer's work throughout. Algernon's morning room (described by Wilde as artistically furnished) has nine animal trophy heads on the walls (which, along with the costumes, are entirely in black and white). Each head is mounted on a wall hanging which consists of zebra stripes surrounded on the edges by leopard spots. Only Algernon and Cecily have matching costumes in act two (chartreuse and white), and, for unknown reasons, we see Algernon has changed into a red and white striped jacket mid scene. In the third act, Lady Bracknell is costumed in what appears to be a too far over the top Fourth of July marching bandmaster's uniform. Her hideous skirt consists of vertical red and white strips. In fairness, I should mention that Alexander Dodge's oddly designed second act estate garden set (it looks like a garden maze) is attractive, and his third act country estate drawing room set is a beauty.
Throughout Earnest, the various characters step out of their conversation with one another and come downstage to speak a line or two directly to the audience. On most of these occasions their words are clearly meant for the on stage others. On some of these occasions, the lighting for the set is considerably reduced; sometimes, the stage lights are not dimmed at all.
Actors have been directed to perform ridiculously over the top. Jeffrey Carlson initially performs Algernon in the manner of a spastic fool. By the third act, he demonstrates that he is capable of far better. Keith Reddin as Reverend Chasuble reads virtually all of his lines as if each is the punch line of a joke. Cynthia Mace does two pratfalls, practically one after another, as Prism. Someone should have told Schweizer that Prism is a terrific role without pratfalls. Zoë Winters is a monumentally shrill and unpleasant Cecily. Chris Spencer Wells plays the butler Merriman as a clown with clown costume and makeup. Wayne Wilcox walks away unscathed with a respectable portrayal of Jack. There can be no question given the high caliber work which these actors and designers have delivered in the past that Schweizer must shoulder the blame for their missteps here.
When Lynn Redgrave's Lady Bracknell returns in act three, we finally get a solid glimpse of the work of Oscar Wilde. With neither fuss nor falderal, Redgrave crisply takes care of business. Surely, there is stylization in her performance, but Redgrave is precise in her enunciation and timing, and she means what she says. Surely Lady Bracknell is funny, surely she's a character, but Redgrave makes certain that her Lady Bracknell doesn't know that. And playing tightly in tandem with her, Annika Boras raises her game to do some fine work.
It is amazing how much life and sparkle Lynn Redgrave brings to the third act of this Earnest. With her leading the way, may this troupe quickly realize The Importance of Being Earnest.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues performances through February 15, 2009 (Evenings: Wednesdays, Thursdays & Sundays 7:30 p.m.; Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m. / Matinees: Thursdays, Saturdays & Sundays 2 p.m. at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde; directed by David Schweizer