10 August 2002: Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

New Century Theatre at Smith College, Northampton. Directed by Jack Neary

I went back to see the New Century Theatre’s Earnest for the second time last night, after having seen it a week ago. Oddly, the timing was off in a few places and there were a few muffed or missed lines; and overall the perform­ances were a bit less subtle. It reminded me of what is sometimes said about aging people: they don’t become better, or become worse; they become more like themselves. Perhaps the cast was beginning to tire a bit, at almost the end of the two-week run (they close with a matinee today).

Still, it was very enjoyable, as before. The pace of the cigarette case chase in Act I was off, but certain key sequences in Acts II and III went off like a bang. (Wilde once said of this play, and of farce in general, “It must go like a pistol shot.”) The tea scene between Gwendolen and Cecily in Act II was very well done, and the Miss Prism discovery scene in Act III was almost as good; Miss Prism needed a deeper breath before embarking on her lurid story about the awful day when in a fit of distraction she placed her three volume novel (“of more than usually revolting sentimentality,” Lady Bracknell heartlessly reminds her) in the bassinet of the perambulator and the baby in the handbag. But the rest of the sequence was good, and the preceding moment, climaxed by Lady Bracknell’s alarming, insistent cry, at full voice, “Prism! Where is that baby?” was very effective, eliciting instantaneous horror from the rest of the characters and sudden silence from the audience. A week ago the moment was even more effective, as if suddenly we had switched out of farce into something nearer to tragedy and were about to make a fateful discovery that would spell ruin for all. Last night, the generic frisson didn’t quite carry so far, but the moment was telling and well played all the same.

New Century Theatre is the only Equity company in the region (active only in summer, in an eight-week season of four plays), and not all of their actors are Equity. Clearly, this combination of professionals and locals can pay dividends, as in the case of Jarice Hanson’s Miss Prism, blonde, round-faced, hair piled high on her head and an almost constant plaintive expression on her face that speaks of sexual longings very imperfectly thrust under. Her counterpart, Tom McCabe, as Doctor Chasuble was quite self-aware as the “permanent temptation” Miss Prism complains of, though his accent spoke more of suburban New Jersey than of rural Hertfordshire. There were moments of erotic electricity between the two that went far toward explaining Chasuble’s sudden “Laetitia! At last!” at the end.

The standout was Max Williams as Algy, a tall, solidly built man, with just the right combination of energy and languor. He had a wig with great curls of blonde hair (de rigueur, it seems, for a personage of whom Cecily can say, “I like his hair so much”). Indeed, Algy told the truth, uncharacteristically, it seems, when, in answer to Cecily’s question “Does your hair curl naturally?” he replies, “Yes, darling, with a little help from others.” Patrick Tancredi was suitably earnest as Jack / Ernest. He plays a character always just one step ahead of his comeuppance (see the note below**), appropriately so. And the moments of agitation, of which there are a good many, render him sometimes almost beside himself, even while he remains articulate enough for us to hear and understand every word.

There is equally good contrast between the two young women. One usually thinks of Gwendolen as dark-haired and soubrette-like and Cecily as blonde, languid, and romantic; but New Century Theatre’s production reversed these aspects. Marion Ireland’s Gwendolen is fair, blonde, and razor-sharp; not exactly pretty, with a thin smile and keen eyes, but with a bodily and vocal assertiveness that brook no interference. Jack is certainly on to something when he worriedly asks Algy if he thinks Gwendolen “will become like her mother in about a hundred and fifty years”; my own estimate would be “eight or nine.” She has been to school in Lady Bracknell’s Academy of Imperious Behavior and has learned her lessons well. Yet she is no more than a match for Stephanie Carlson’s Cecily, who manages to combine rose-garden romantic yearnings for male connection with clear-eyed views of reality and the strength of will fully the equal of Gwendolen’s. The audience gets it and is delighted when Gwendolen, in the Act II scene in which both Jack and Algy are discovered to be impostors, says to Cecily, “You will call me sister, won’t you?” — evidently mindful of Algy’s wry comment in Act I that women call each other sister only after they have called each other a lot of other things first.

In this way, and in many others, the director Jack Neary gets what might be called the through-line of wit right. Farce is about nothing if it is not about tables turning, about licentiousness hoist by its own petard. The chickens, in Arthur Miller’s homely phrase, invariably come home to roost. The play is admirably designed and written for such 1-2 punches to occur, and Neary makes the most of them, recognizing things just enough for us to be reminded that there is a clockwork logic working itself out at every moment. A small example of the idea: in Act III, during the discovery scene, at one point all the characters who are standing up suddenly sit, as all who are sitting suddenly stand.

Where does Lady Bracknell fall in this scheme of things? Her comeuppance, as the classic blocking character unblocked, is the mildest possible. “I am afraid that the news I have to give you will not altogether please you,” she replies to Jack’s “inquisitive” question, “Would you mind telling me who I am?” After having resolutely excluded him from polite society for the length of almost the entire play, she must now admit him to the charmed circle of her relatives. Sara Whitcomb at first look is an unlikely Lady Bracknell. Her figure is slim, almost slight, and the black wig and monstrous red and black hat — designed, it would seem, by a milliner who had been frightened by a geisha girl — appear almost to overpower her. Her voice lacks timbre and depth; it inclines to be shrill and thin. Yet Whitcomb overcomes these seeming deficiencies and makes of Lady Brack­nell an almost fearful nemesis. Whitcomb is not quite capable of realizing the great rhetorical periods of the character’s speech:

– “… the end of the season, when people have said everything they have to say, which in most cases was probably not much.”
– “Apprised, sir, of my daughter’s flight by her trusty maid, whose confidence I purchased by means of a small coin…”

But she compensates for this with a steely kind of determination that lives only a millimeter or so beneath her conventional late-Victorian placidity of demeanor. Given the attributes of her daughter as enacted by Marion Ireland, Neary was well advised to cast Whitcomb in the role of the mother, though at first it seemed she would’ve done better as Miss Prism.

My only real complaint, in fact, has to do with a series of odd shifts of emphasis in certain phrases, from the noun to the adjective that modifies it. Some examples, taken at random:

– “four of my unpublished sermons.”
– “Drawn from the Pagan authors.”
– “Peculiarly susceptible to draughts.”

There are others. I find all my examples here are Chasuble’s mistakes, but a few other characters were doing it too. Oh, and the Maréchal Niel: it’s a rose, a yellow rose. So when Algy says “I’d rather have a pink rose,” the emphasis is correctly on the adjective, pink, not the noun, where Max Williams mistakenly puts it. Nobody bothered to ask what kind of flower a Maréchal Niel is. Grrr.
**Note: The real center of the play, dramaturgically, is this sense of Jack “on the run”: the classic predicament of the hero of farce, whose fate of eventual exposure is as inevitable as Oedipus’s.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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