KPBS AIRDATE: May 21, 1997
It’s a number-jumble. 102 years since the original opening of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Fifty years since the start of the La Jolla Playhouse and 15 since its resurrection and revival. Forty-eight years since the Oscar Wilde comedy first played at the Playhouse. So why doesn’t it all add up to something wonderful? Well, in some senses, it does.
There was the megabuck gala last weekend, with founders Gregory Peck and Mel Ferrer in attendance, as well as the Playhouse revitalizer and artistic director Des McAnuff, along with the current high-profile A.D., Michael Greif. Everyone is strutting around, proud and puffed-up. It IS an event, and the Playhouse has done wonders for our fair city. But what about this celebrational production? It was kinda shaky before it started.
Temperamental Academy Award-winner Linda Hunt, who was slated to play the monstrous matriarch, Lady Bracknell, pulled out of the role, citing temporary health problems — only ten days before the first preview. In stepped Christine Estabrook, who had been cast as the absent-minded schoolmarm, Miss Prism. Up stepped dialect coach Ursula Meyer to portray Miss Prism. So, there were jitters all around. Estabrook is young for the role, and she didn’t really have enough time to prepare. She does a credible job, but her Lady Bracknell is far from the “gorgon” she’s purported to be. The performance doesn’t have the show-stopping hilarity it should, but neither does the production.
Something is off here. When you try to play comedy for comic effect, it never works. And, in straining to update the piece, the director allows dialogue to be tossed off like so many punchlines. Words are often swallowed, and that simply won’t do when the words were written by Oscar Wilde. His last play is considered to be his masterpiece, built on a pun and filled with epigrammatic wit.
In skewering Victorian values, the sentimentality, hypocrisy and shallow social facades, his clever trifle carries the portentous message that no life can be lived in earnest without due regard for nonsense. The piece is subtitled “A trivial play for serious people.” In the tongue-in-cheek comedy, everyone is laboring under a pretense of earnestness, but nobody’s really fooling anyone else. Exactly the same could be said about this production.
It looks gorgeous — the set, much more than the costumes — and very up-to-date: sleek, modern, elegantly minimalist. But nobody’s fooling anybody. Though the sentiments are timeless, the piece is decidedly eighteen-nineties, and no one seems quite willing to admit that. Most important, though, this play is all about language; director Les Waters has attended to comic detail, but not to linguistic legerdemain. And he’s got everyone intoning their lines; the drawn-out vowels and melodic prosody ultimately become a drone. And why such a fey and mincing rector? That directorial decision renders the love interest between Rev. Chasuble and Miss Prism totally ludicrous.
Nonetheless, there are real bright spots: Aimée Guillot is delightful as the adorable ingénue, Cecily, and Jefferson Mays is charmingly earnest as Jack Worthing, the foundling found in a leather satchel. But overall, the production is much less Wilde than it oughta be.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.