Chicago Theatre Review
Style, Not Sincerity, is the Thing
The Importance of Being Earnest – Dead Writers Collective
Oscar Wilde subtitled this, his last play, as “a trivial comedy for serious people.” In 1895, with what would become the playwright’s most popular work, something groundbreaking was occurring. A play at that time, while entertaining, demanded the inclusion of some sort of social message; a comedy couldn’t exist merely for amusement. Highly critical of the arrogant hypocrisy around him, Wilde set out to mock Victorian social conventions, especially those that forced gay men to lead a double life. With special triviality he attacked that most serious of social institutions: marriage. Through the play’s highly sophisticated farce, scathing satire and witty, humorous dialogue, Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners became the culmination of his brilliant artistic career.
And can there be a more exquisite comedy in the English language? Populated by some of literature’s most delightfully self-absorbed characters, Oscar Wilde’s comedy fairly drips with pompous attitude and delicious language. In Jim Schneider’s smart, skillfully directed production, the playwright’s magnum opus is presented with energy, style and wit. The play’s broad humor, which falls naturally from the tongues of these nine talented actors, paints a satirical portrait of the Victorian upper class.
Dead Writers Collective prides itself, not only in its mission to produce celebrated works by deceased playwrights, but in its desire to present big theatre in a small space. Schneider’s production lives up to this goal, filling the tiny Athenaeum Studio 2 stage with whimsy. Attention to detail is the company’s hallmark, and it’s evident with this production that includes Eric Luchen’s colorful, historically accurate scenic design. Motivated by Wilde’s February 14 London premiere, Luchen has combined the look of a Victorian pop-up Valentine with elements from the popular, miniature toy theatres of that period. For Wilde’s comedy, the scenic designer has created a false proscenium that frames the stage and defines the fourth wall, separating the public from the players. All of the scenery, including Luchen’s sparse, stylized furnishings, appears to be two-dimensional, as if made from paper, and can be equally credited to the work of scenic artist, Lee Coolidge Moore.
Another stamp of this company is their lavish, elaborate period costuming. It’s one of the elements that audiences count on and, once again, Dead Writers doesn’t disappoint. Patti Roeder’s flamboyant fin de siecle fashions add another dimension to each character. Again, the attention to minute detail, and the combination of unique fabrics and textures, all blend to create a beautifully elegant portrait of aristocratic English Victorian society.
Schneider’s production is truly funny and his cast is quite good. They each capture the flavor and pretentious affectation of Wilde’s characters. Jack Dryden is particularly excellent as Algernon, a role he was born to play. His posture, mannerisms and subtle vocal acrobatics must be what Oscar Wilde imagined when writing this role. Mr. Dryden casually spits out clever bon mots as effortlessly as he munches cucumber sandwiches and muffins. Dryden opens the play casually conversing with Lane, his proper, bachelor manservant, played with delectably dry wit by Chris Bruzzini. Tossing his long, curly locks, the handsome, Mr. Dryden makes an impishly impulsive and likable Algernon. Sean Magill creates a stylishly accomplished and believably persnickety Jack Worthing. His endless bantering with Mr. Dryden is as delightful as his hopeless mooning and flirtation with Gwendolyn (played to prim perfection by the lovely Maeghan Looney). However, sometimes, given to unnecessary mugging, Mr. Magill slides a bit over the top. When he underplays his role, Magill really gets it right and he’s delightful. But the actor often seems swayed by audience reaction, inspiring him to overdo it. As an actor, Mr. Magill needs to understand that less is so often more.
As Algernon’s formidable Aunt Augusta, Mary Anne Bowman, all high-piled pompadour and retractable pince-nez spectacles, navigates the stage like a well-crafted, three-masted battleship. This Lady Bracknell sashays everywhere, dripping with disdain, glaring at her inferiors and taking no prisoners. She’s both a frightening force and an hilarious harridan, turning in the play’s funniest performance. Deliciously sliding up and down the vocal scale with every line of dialogue, Ms. Bowman delivers one of Wilde’s funniest and most memorable moments. Haughtily arching her eyebrows she looks down her nose at Jack and exclaims, in her rich baritone, “A handbag?”
Megan Delay is everything Jack Worthing’s ward should be. As Cecily, the actress is pretty, perky and a little punchy, radiating a penchant for romance and a hunger for adventure. Manipulating everyone around her, Ms. Delay isn’t about to be overshadowed or threatened by anybody, least of all by her new best friend, Gwendolyn. As Algernon’s cousin, Maeghan Looney is uppity, ultra-sophisticated and given to unexpected moments of unbridled delight. Ms. Looney is truly Lady Bracknell’s daughter, and this actress’ beautiful command of language and dialect is perfection. The courteous, very civilized tea party scene between Ms. Delay and Ms. Looney in Act II stands out as one of the highlights of this production. Patti Roeder is delightfully maternal, yet properly pedagogical as the befuddled and easily bullied Miss Prism, and Elliott Fredland brings culture and class to lovelorn clergyman, Rev. Canon Chasuble. Jonathan Crabtree, buried beneath a nest of facial hair, completes this talented cast, playing Merriman as a humorous, slightly hard-of-hearing butler.
Audiences who’ve never experienced this clever, absolutely delightful play have a real treat in store. Playgoers already familiar with Oscar Wilde’s droll, sidesplitting comedy of manners will rediscover both the playwright’s sparkling wit, his unleashed satire and his extraordinary talent with words.
Elegantly and energetically presented by a talented ensemble, under the guidance of director Jim Schneider, and supported by his gifted artistic team, this production comes from one of Chicago’s continually evolving theatre companies. This polished gem shines brightly and radiates with style. And as Oscar Wilde wrote, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 1-31 by the Dead Writers Collective at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the the box office, by calling them at 773-935-6860 or by going to www.deadwriters.net.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.