Chicago Theatre Review
Style and Sincerity Rule
The Importance of Being Earnest – Writers Theatre
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 dialogue. In Michael Halberstam’s smart, stylish and skillfully directed production, the playwright’s magnum opus is presented with energy and wit. The comedy’s broad humor, which falls naturally from the tongues of these eight talented actors, paints a satirical portrait of the Victorian upper class.
Oscar Wilde subtitled this, his last play, “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 for mere amusement. Highly critical of the arrogance and hypocrisy around him, Wilde set out to mock Victorian social conventions, especially those that forced gay men to lead a double life. With particular triviality he attacked that most serious and revered of social institutions: marriage. Through the play’s sophisticated, scathing satire and witty, farcical conversation, Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners became the culmination of his brilliant artistic career.
Collette Pollard’s colorful, historically accurate scenic design is not only beautiful, but clever and creative. For Wilde’s comedy, this talented scenic designer, whose work has been enjoyed on every major Chicago stage, has created a majestic Greek revival structure of arches and columns that serves all three acts of the play. Pollard’s series of brightly painted Periaktoi, which are easily turned to expose a different colored background for each act, also creates a new look for each locale. Each of the three settings are sparsely accented by an assortment of stylish, period furnishings.
Another highlight of this production is Mara Blumenfeld’s lavish, elaborate period costuming. Audiences have come to count on with this Jeff Award-winning designer for her wonderful work and, once again, Ms. Blumenfeld doesn’t disappoint. Her flamboyant English fashions are breathtaking and add another dimension to each character. The perceptive theatergoer may also notice how cleverly the designer subtly incorporates the color from Ms. Pollard’s sets into her costumes. Again, the artist’s attention to minute detail, and her combination of unique colors and fabrics, all blend to create a beautifully elegant portrait of aristocratic Victorian society.
Halberstam’s production is truly funny and his cast is excellent. Each actor captures the flavor and pretentious affectation of Wilde’s characters. Steve Haggard, who becomes better with each role he undertakes, is particularly wonderful as Algernon. This is a role he was born to play. Haggard’s casual posture and mannerisms and subtle vocal acrobatics must be what Oscar Wilde imagined when writing this role. Mr. Haggard casually spits out clever bon mots as effortlessly as he munches cucumber sandwiches and muffins. Steve Haggard opens the play casually conversing with Lane, his proper manservant, played with delectably dry wit by Ross Lehman. Tossing his long, curly locks, the handsome, Mr. Haggard makes an impishly impulsive and likable Algernon.
Alex Goodrich creates a stylishly accomplished and believably persnickety friend in John (Jack) Worthing. His endless bantering with Mr. Haggard is as delightful as his hopeless mooning and flirtation with Gwendolyn (played to prim perfection by the lovely Jennifer Latimore). Natural, conversational, expressive and hilariously understated in his reactions, this actor never allows his performance to become over the top in his portrayal. Alex Goodrich really gets it right and he’s absolutely delightful.
As Algernon’s formidable Aunt Augusta, Shannon Cochran, all high-piled pompadour, proper diction and fashionable social graces, navigates the stage like a well-dressed, three-masted battleship. This Lady Bracknell drips with disdain, glaring at her inferiors while taking no prisoners. She’s both a frightening force and an hilarious harridan, turning in the play’s funniest and most memorable performance. Deliciously sliding up and down the vocal scale with each line of dialogue, Ms. Cochran 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, resonant tones, “A handbag?”
Rebecca Hurd is everything Jack Worthing’s ward should be. As Cecily, the actress is pretty and perky, radiating her consuming penchant for romance and a hunger for adventure. Manipulating everyone around her, Ms. Hurd isn’t about to be overshadowed or threatened by anybody, least of all by her new best friend, Gwendolyn. As Algernon’s cousin, Jennifer Latimore is uppity, ultra-sophisticated and given to unexpected moments of delight. Ms. Latimore is truly Lady Bracknell’s daughter, and this actress’ beautiful command of language and dialect is perfection. The courteous, very civilized Act II tea party scene between these two young ladies stands out as one of the highlights of this production. Anita Chandwaney is delightfully maternal, yet properly pedagogical as the befuddled and easily bullied Miss Prism, and Aaron Todd Douglas brings culture and class to lovelorn clergyman, Rev. Canon Chasuble. Ross Lehman, with just a simple change of dress, returns in Acts II and III as Mr. Worthing’s inebriated manservant, Merriman. One of the more delicious delights of this production, Lehman plays this character as a slightly befuddled, boozed-up butler who occasionally wanders through a room with confused bewilderment, stopping to cling to the pillars for support.
Audiences who’ve never experienced this clever, absolutely delightful comedy have a real treat in store. Playgoers already familiar with Oscar Wilde’s droll comedy of manners will rediscover the playwright’s sparkling wit, his unleashed satire and his extraordinary talent for wordplay. Elegantly and
energetically presented by a talented ensemble of Chicago’s finest actors, under the skillful guidance of talented director Michael Halberstam, and supported by his gifted artistic team, this is yet another entertaining evening from one of Chicago’s most respected theatre companies. Oscar Wilde’s polished gem shines brightly here and radiates with elegance. The playwright wrote, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” However, at Writers Theatre, audiences won’t find a more sincere production of this brilliant, classic comedy.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 8-December 23 by Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 847-242-6000 or by going to www.writerstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.