Spotlighters' 'Importance of Being Earnest' is full of fast-moving fun

June 11, 1992|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Contributing Writer

An exceptional version of Oscar Wilde's brilliant social satire, "The Importance of Being Earnest," is currently on stage at the Spotlighters Theatre through June 28.

Directed with a delightfully droll hand, Nick Raye and his outstanding cast has captured the true spirit of Wilde's playful 1894 farce. Set by Raye in a contemporary limbo, Wilde's masterpiece -- generally acknowledged as the wittiest light comedy in the English language -- radiates with intelligence, poise and grace.

Working from Wilde's own notes and a four-act version, part of the collection of the New York Public Library, Raye has restored much of the author's cleverly absurd lines, which have been deleted in other accounts.

In his three acts, Raye has also established a fine, swift pace and a sophisticated high comedy style. Such a style is necessary to the success of this particular play, and all the actors charmingly sustain it.

The timing is excellent and the delivery of the wonderfully funny dialogue is beautifully executed.

On the other hand, Raye has introduced a broad, sexual physicality to the play which was not included in the traditional text. We prefer the subtlety of the amusing passionless version. Also, the last line of play -- the title -- is the final pun and should be strongly expressed.

The first and second acts move along at a snappy rate. The third act bogs down a bit and must pick up to equal the fervor of the previous scenes.

In this and other work, Wilde mocked the English class system and its smug hypocrisy, a theme which is still relevant today.

The frothy story focuses on a group of deliciously shallow characters. Serious, credulous Jack Worthing has an innocent 18-year-old ward, Cecily Cardew, who resides at his country estate. Jack has invented a younger, wicked brother named Earnest as an excuse to go to town.

His closest friend, Algernon Moncrieff, a young ne'er-do-well, has created an invalid named Bunbury as an excuse for going to the country. Jack is engaged to be married to Gwendolen Fairfax, daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell. Algernon, under the pretense of being Jack's imaginary brother Earnest (whom Jack has just killed off) visits Jack's country estate and becomes engaged to Cecily.

Both girls are infatuated with the name Earnest and state they cannot marry anyone who does not bear that name.

Algernon's impersonation is uncovered and so is Jack's rather strange past. It seems as a baby he was left in a handbag in Victoria Station and adopted by a wealthy gentleman named Cardew. But more fascinating surprises are in store as the mystery surrounding Jack's origins is finally brought to light and all is happily resolved.

As the audacious, artful Algernon, Timm Munn is absolutely superb. Lackadaisical and narcissistic, he employs a deliciously cynical, slightly decadent demeanor. From the moment he enters -- chest naked -- clad in purple shorts and paisley robe with a ruby dangling from his left ear, Munn has the audience in the palm of his hand.

Gregory Kemper as stalwart Jack Worthing is the perfect foil for Munn's character. Kemper turns in an admirable performance. Munn and Kemper carry on a wonderful repartee throughout the show. Their second act scene in the garden at Jack's manor house in which they engage in a verbal duel over their women and muffins is simply hilarious.

Heather A. Osborne is a most convincing Lady Bracknell. Though actually too young for the middle-aged dowager, Osborne does a credible job. However, we would have preferred to see a local character actress of proper years (with great heaving bosom) in this domineering role, which is often done in drag.

Tracey Rohn is enchanting as the romantic young Cecily, and Alex Willis is quite good as the more cosmopolitan Gwendolen. Doug Kaufman is a standout as the convoluted Dr. Chasuble. Corky White does well as the repressed spinster Miss Prism, but the actress needs much greater projection of character.

The costumes lack creativity and imagination but the performances are what make his show one of the best community production so far this year.

*

NOTEWORTHY: Choreographer Donald Byrd's "Honey Chil' Milk II," the second in the fine "Honey Chil' Milk" series satirizing stereotypes of African-American women, is being performed this weekend at the Theatre Project. Call 752-8558 for details.

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