Monday, September 5, 2022

The Importance of Being Earnest and Too True to Be Good: The Gift of Gab

Martin Happer and Julia Course in The Importance of Being Earnest. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

Tim Carroll’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Shaw Festival is no doubt giving pleasure to a great many theatregoers this year.  No one has ever, to my knowledge, written a funnier play than Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy of Victorian manners, and Carroll’s mounting honors both the wit and the style of the text. It is also – thanks to Gillian Gallow’s set (with its multiple frames), Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and especially Christina Poddubiuk’s costumes – lovely to look at.

This Earnest is not, however, without its flaws. Carroll’s actors don’t sustain the breakneck tempo the play demands; it slows down as the performance moves forward, when the last thing we want is to interrupt our enjoyment of the proceedings by contemplating the meaning of what we’re watching. (The meaning is clear enough: the play is a delicious critique of Victorian superficiality.) And the cast is a little uneven. Martin Happer and Julia Course are an ideal match as Jack, the orphan whose dubious origins – he was discovered, as a baby, in a train-station handbag – and Gwendolen, the object of his affections, whose insistence on wedding only a man named Ernest causes him not a little distress. Course’s air of elegant restraint plays off Happer’s effervescence. Happer is in his forties, but when Jack identifies himself as twenty-nine, the moment is charming because the actor has been doing such a deft job of parodying the character’s boyishness. Peter Fernandes plays the supremely self-indulgent Algernon, who shows up uninvited to Jack’s country estate to confirm his suspicion that his friend is, like himself, a practiced “Bunburyist” – i.e., that, just as Algernon has invented a friend named Bunbury to provide excuses for him to skip undesirable social situations, so Jack’s purported brother is a convenient fiction. Fernandes works too hard, embellishing moments that need no embellishment, yet all his jokes land. Ric Reid makes the most of his few scenes as the aging Reverend Canon Chasuble, mooning over Miss Prism (Jacqueline Thair), governess to Jack’s ward, Cecily (Gabriella Sundar Singh).

Singh is the only member of the cast who hasn’t mastered the language, and her bouncing-ball energy undermines the idea at the heart of the play that these characters may behave precisely as they wish but they never make a spectacle of themselves. (Happer’s Jack is buoyant without ever being gauche.) Carroll makes much of the fact that Course towers over Singh, but the joke gets awfully broad, and besides, Cecily claims to be tall for her age, so the casting is puzzling in a way that Happer’s isn’t. And though Kate Hennig is a perfectly competent Lady Bracknell, her acting lacks invention. She’s bested by the legacy of the role, possibly the funniest in the repertory. There have been so many marvelous Lady Bracknells (some of them in drag) that the moment she appears we anticipate with excitement what the performer will do with those fabulous speeches. It isn’t really enough for an actress to read them adequately. This season, I think, Hennig is more interesting in the role of the stern, loyal housekeeper in Gaslight.

Patrick Galligan in Too True to Be Good. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

One of the joys of attending the Shaw regularly over many years is the chance to see some of the lesser-known work of the most prolific major playwright in theatre history. (The company has just published next year’s season, and I was delighted to see both The Apple Cart and Village Wooing, neither of which I’ve read or seen, among the offerings.) The 2022 season includes one his late plays, Too True to Be Good, originally performed in 1932, when he was seventy-six. He went on turning them out up until 1950, the year he died..

I saw Too True to Be Good the last time around, in 2006, and, finding it impenetrable, I ducked out at intermission. The play is narrated by a Microbe (played, in the original British production, by the incomparable Ernest Thesiger, preserved in photographs in an uproarious costume) who resides in the body of a young woman ailing in a hospital; presumably the revival was occasioned by the pandemic. At the end of act one she recovers and runs away to an unnamed mountainous country with her Nurse and a Burglar, the trio united in a scheme to pretend she’s been kidnapped and demand a ransom. The remaining two acts, as the Microbe warns us before the first interval, have no real plot, just a whirlwind of political and philosophical discourse; the play is subtitled A Collection of Stage Sermons by a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The current edition, directed by Sanjay Talwar, is much more diverting. I still couldn’t make much sense of the script, but there are so many terrific actors on the stage of the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre that the evening drifts by amiably. Chief among them are Marla McLean, whose blend of intelligence and sensuality recalls Ida Lupino, as the Nurse; Martin Happer, who plays the Doctor in the first act and returns as the eloquent, clear-headed Sergeant Fielding in the second and third; and Neil Barclay, channeling Charles Laughton, as Colonel Tallboys, sputtering with late-colonial outrage at the bureaucratic improprieties around him. Jonathan Tan plays the pragmatic, indispensable Private Napoleon Alexander Trotsky Meek, whose unruffled command of every situation exasperates Tallboys even more than the offenses of those who fail to live up to his expectations. As the mother of the missing Patient, Jenny L. Wright comes into her own when the character reappears in act three, driven so to distraction by anxiety that she doesn’t even recognize her daughter. And as if that weren’t enough of a display of the glories of the Shaw company for one show, the commanding Patrick Galligan sails on in the final act as The Elder, who turns out to be the Burglar’s papa.

Unfortunately, Graeme Somerville, another actor I admire, was indisposed the night I saw the show, and Ric Reid had to stand in for him on book as the Burglar. Reid is a wonderful performer, but he hadn’t rehearsed the part, and it’s the largest in the play, full of lengthy speeches that require caeful shaping. Moreover, he was often paired with Donna Soares as the Patient, a relative novice at the Shaw – it’s only her second season – who seemed to be out of her depth among so many veterans. Those scenes presented something of an obstacle course. Nonetheless, I was happy I’d attended.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.   

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