Review: NY Classical’s The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest is widely regarded as Oscar Wilde's masterpiece, and watching NY Classical’s new production at A.R.T./New York Theatres, it’s easy to see why. No word is out of place, no line is not sharply pointed. The comedy rolls along at a sleek pace, with one clever witticism following hard on the heels of another.
Of course, it helps to have a good cast, and the NY Classical cast, under the direction of Stephen Burdman, plays Wilde’s masterful comedy with smooth decorum, as befitting these characters who seem so straight laced and proper.
But there’s an undercurrent of outrageous hilarity running just below the surface, brought to life especially by Connie Castanzo as Cecily Cardew and Jed Peterson as Jack Worthing. (While we’re on the subject of casting, I’ll just point out that the actors switch gender roles every other night, so that the women play the men’s parts and vice versa. I saw the play on a conventional casting night and am dying to go back and see it with the parts switched.)
Peterson’s Jack is a man trying desperately to maintain his cool in the face of a ridiculous society which he perhaps doesn’t realize is ridiculous. Or if he does, he knows that acknowledging the fact openly will only result in his being ostracized. He’s done what he can to preserve an appearance of decorum and privilege, but unfortunately for Jack, there’s only so much you can do when your only known relative is a somewhat large, ordinary handbag. Peterson’s performance as Jack is wonderfully polarized: he flies from cool and collected to righteously furious in an instant, but always in a way that seems natural.
Meanwhile, Castanzo's Cecily is a girl who wants desperately to be a sophisticated socialite, but doesn’t really know what that means, having never been in society herself. Animated and excitable, she’s charmingly quirky, and her zaniness renders her lovable--though also vastly amusing.
As the focus here is the characters--their personalities, choices, desires, and blunders--set and props are minimal (though there are, in fact, real cucumber sandwiches that do actually get eaten). A simple tea set, table, and, of course, a handbag are about the only props that make an appearance, and the stage is set to resemble a plain, grassy lawn.
To some extent, the viewers themselves provide the set--and a dynamic one at that. Seated on three quarters of the stage, audience members are told to get up and move to the section on their right between each act. It’s “panoramic theatre,” we’re told, which in this case is just a fancy name for getting up and switching seats every so often. Despite this, it works like a charm—forcing us to participate and adding a further element of fun and spontaneity to the production. Much like Wilde’s characters, we’re acting a part that’s been prescribed for us, no matter how ridiculous it seems. And, I might add (at least in my own case), enjoying it.
Tickets are FREE! But make reservations... Running March 5–24 at The Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street).
Erin Kahn is an NYC based author, freelance writer, theatre critic, and book and album reviewer. Her reviews have caused artists to laugh out loud and weep with joy (true story). Contact her at erin_kahn(at)aol.com.