Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 2002

Two genius playwrights. Two centuries of wit. One smart theater choice.

North Coast Repertory Theatre is living up to its name, as few Repertory companies do any more… offering in tandem a deliciously droll duet: a 19th century comedy of manners and a 20th century absurdist farce.

NCRT is presenting in repertory (same cast, different shows), Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comic masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and Tom Stoppard’s mind-bogglingly clever 1974 memory play, “Travesties.” You might call it summer fare with smarts.

This felicitous theatrical coupling (mounted in the ’70s at the Mark Taper Forum, and elsewhere since) so intrigued artistic director Sean Murray that he called in another acclaimed actor-director, Rosina Reynolds, to share the excitement and challenge. The idea was for both to direct and star, but Reynolds had other commitments, so she won’t play the imperious, hilarious Lady Bracknell in “Earnest” (Annie Hinton will). But Murray will still portray Henry Carr, whose faulty, addled memory gives structure (sort of) to “Travesties.”

Carr was, in fact, a minor official at the British Consulate in Zurich around the time of WWI. Foreshadowing his later brilliant work, “Arcadia” (which Murray directed beautifully two years ago), Stoppard set “Travesties” in two timeframes: 1974, in Carr’s dotage, and 1917, when his life intersected with three influential innovators: Irish writer James Joyce, French-Romanian poet Tristan Tzara (pen name of Samuel Rosenfeld) and Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. He may never have met the latter two, but Carr had a protracted legal run-in with Joyce.

The irony is, Carr was a sometime actor, who was cast as the rich, desultory Algernon Moncrieff in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” So, Stoppard’s characters have direct counterparts in Wilde’s comedy, and Wilde’s immortal lines are alluded to and interspersed in Stoppard’s play, which also satirizes the writing of Joyce, Shakespeare, limericks and vaudeville. The cross-casting between plays adds extra appeal and amusement. As Sean Murray puts it, “It’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for thinkers.”

Both plays, drunk on language, wit and wisdom, resonate more than ever today.

“Right now,” says Murray, “we’re at a fascinating time politically. A lot of things are going on that people are watching very intently. There’s a lot of rallying about words and ideas: ‘terrorism,’ ‘patriotism.’ What do these words mean? And how much is rallying around the ideas, how much is just ‘cashing in’ on the frenzy? This is a good time to look at what ‘Travesties’ is all about: war and politics, revolution and change, and how — or whether — artists affect society. ‘Earnest’s’ themes are relevant, too: the duplicitousness of men, the class distinctions, the double standards.”

There doesn’t seem to be any double standard in the directing department.

“We’ve worked together as actors,” Murray says, “and I’ve directed her in the past. We have different ideas and different energies. It’s an experiment, but we’re both experienced enough to make it work. The fun part is the collaboration.”

“I tend to focus on the sound and rhythm of a play,” Reynolds explains. “I pay a great deal of attention to the text, the structure and grammar of the text, the rhythm and vocal patterns. Sean takes a more visual approach. He creates such beautiful stage pictures. He thinks first of the look. I think of the sound, the musicality of the piece.”

Her English background will certainly come in handy.

“Wilde’s plays are beautifully written, for audiences and for actors,” Reynolds asserts, and they stay fresh “as long as the actors keep away from stuffy posturing and posing. And Stoppard has the keenest ear for English language and vocal patterns, especially the irony, the implications, the language play. The comedy routines, the limericks, the music hall — this is what I grew up on.”

Interestingly enough, neither of these quintessentially English playwrights was actually a native of England. Wilde was Irish, and Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia, schooled in India. But Wilde’s skewering of Victorian nobility and hypocritical clergy is timeless, endlessly amusing and intelligent. And Stoppard (most famous of late for “Shakespeare in Love”) takes potshots at everyone, relishing the time-traveling commonalities between past and present, history and fantasy.

“I really love the whole notion of time and memory,” Murray concedes. “All the events in ‘Travesties’ are bouncing around inside this elderly gentleman’s addled brain. You’re never quite sure where you are or what to believe. So we see Joyce, the High Priest of Literature and ‘Art for art’s sake.’ And Tzara, High Priest of dadaism and radicalism. And Lenin, High Priest of political revolution. Carr is the high priest of the bourgeois, living through a time when everything around him is changing. It’s fun watching him defend the status quo to these revolutionaries.”

Both directors recommend seeing both plays, of course, possibly even on one day (matinee and evening), so you can appreciate all the wink-nudge, clever cross-references. Murray suggests that “with Wilde’s lines fresh in your ears, you’ll be in on Stoppard’s jokes. But each play definitely stands on its own.”

[The Importance of Being Earnest runs through September 8, in repertory with Travesties, which continues through September 15, at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach; 888-776-NCRT].

©2002 Patté Productions Inc.