David Schweizer’s fluent, assured staging dominates his wildly unconventional production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, headlined and heightened by Lynn Redgrave as sternly hypocritical matriarch Lady Bracknell. The sparkling dialogue and verbal duels survive with elegance intact in Oscar Wilde’s evergreen comedy of manners, despite some jarring visual intrusions and broad interpretations of Victorian behavior.
The farcical narrative Wilde himself described as “exquisitely trivial” is driven by the brittle comedy of two sophisticated eligible bachelors who plot their romantic assaults upon a pair of fashionable young ladies.
As Algernon, Jeffrey Carlson ceaselessly pops bon bons and muffins into his mouth and flits about the stage with unnerving agility. His cohort John Worthing (Wayne Wilcox) acquits himself with reserve despite appearing in an improbable checkerboard suit that recalls TV kiddy show host Pinky Lee.
In two richly conceived scenes, Redgrave (who played the same role three years ago in a touring production helmed by Peter Hall) steals the show as the haughty and imperious harridan. Breaking tradition, she puts an amusing and inspired spin on Lady Bracknell’s reaction to the revelation of a baby found at Victoria Station in a handbag. The response has become forever linked to the legendary Edith Evans, who defined the role on the stage opposite John Gielgud in 1939, and on screen in 1952 opposite Michael Redgrave. In this production, that late actor’s daughter simply mouths the word in total silence, rather than ape the wildly familiar expressive reaction. It works wonderfully well and is a credit to her skill.
Unfortunately Redgrave is upstaged in the second act by a candy-striped gown and towering feathered plumage. The director has devised a few pertinent asides to be delivered directly to the audience on a slim downstage apron, dotted with old-fashioned footlights.
Cecily Cardew is played with fluttery charm by Zoe Winters, while Annika Boras is an elegantly poised and self-assured Gwendolen Fairfax in a dazzling apple-green gown (courtesy of costumer David Murin). Cynthia Mace contributes comic abandon as Miss Prism, diving over the furniture with pratfalls as the overprotective mousy governess.
Chris Spencer Wells appears first in a theater box as a corpulent Oscar Wilde, sipping champagne and waving to the arriving patrons, reminding audience members to turn off their cell phones, “whatever they are!” He doubles as a trembling butler who takes forever to serve tea to Gwendolen and Cecily in an overlong scene dominated by rattling cups and saucers that fails to amuse. Keith Reddin misses the droll whimsy as a blandly dour Rev. Chasuble.
Algernon’s extravagant flat on Half Moon Street is an all-black-and-white drawing room, hideously governed by souvenirs of a hunt, with trophy mounts of polar bears, giraffes, lions and wild boars leering from the walls. It’s a rather odd visual assault as neither Algernon nor John would appear to be great white hunters. Alexander Dodge’s set design also boasts a grassy green patio with flowery rose-covered trellis.