Tony Walton, one of theater’s top set designers, makes his New York directing debut with “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and his years working with Broadway’s top directors shows. Of course the production looks wonderful his elegant set designs of Victorian London homes give no indication of either the Irish Rep’s limited space or funds but it’s his direction that’s surprisingly assured for a debut. Generally brisk and without a hint of the camp that often accompanies “Earnest,” the staging gives the abundant epigrams of Oscar Wilde their full due, in no small part thanks to several terrific performances.
In roles that provide easy fits, indie film stalwart Eric Stoltz plays the smug dandy Algernon, friend of Daniel Gerroll’s rather more restrained (though equally given to lies) John Worthing. And Nancy Marchand plays (who else?) Lady Bracknell, Wilde’s brilliant creation of aristocratic grandeur and hypocrisy. Had other roles been as well-cast as these three, this “Earnest” might have been one to remember. As it is, it’s a fine, although not overly inspired, interpretation.
Wilde’s wit-laden masterpiece one is reminded of just how many famous quotes are contained therein flutters around the complications that ensue after Worthing (a man of indeterminate background: He was found as a baby in a handbag left in Victoria Station) creates an imaginary brother (for reasons best left to the stage) named Ernest. Algernon, a wag who seems to best exemplify Wilde’s bemused sneer, adopts the fictitious persona to woo Worthing’s young ward Cecily (Schuyler Grant).
But Worthing himself has taken the name Ernest because it so appeals to his beloved Gwendolen (Melissa Errico), who happens to be the daughter of the very disapproving Lady Bracknell. Two hours and 30 minutes of farcical parlor-doings sort things out, but not before each cast member is afforded any number of beautifully Wildean lines.
Still, the running time does seem overlong, and if trimming is a sacrilege, two intermissions are one too many. A scene in act two between Cecily and Algernon comes off particularly draggy, in part because Grant doesn’t seem to have gotten hold of the charming winsomeness needed in her role. She plays Cecily too close to modern, a misstep particularly obvious in scenes with Errico’s showy perf as Gwendolen. At times these two young women seem not of the same epoch, much less the same play.
Although Marchand stumbled over some of the densely packed dialogue at the reviewed performance, she nails every nuance in the very rich role of Lady Bracknell. It is through the Lady that Wilde has the most wicked fun with Victorian society, yet the genius of the creation is that the character is never stupid or unaware of her own nature. Wilde did not condescend to this character that he clearly both loved and hated, and neither does Marchand. One can only wonder why actress and role haven’t been teamed before.
Stoltz uses his self-satisfied demeanor (familiar to any arthouse filmgoer) to good effect as the conniving bon vivant, and takes to the play’s manner of speech quite handily. His Algy is more mischievous than malicious, which seems in keeping the Wilde’s playful tone. Gerroll, in the less flamboyant role of Worthing, provides a solid foundation for the more outrageous characters. Sloane Shelton as the forgetful governess Miss Prism and instantly familiar character actor John Fiedler as the local reverend are charming.
Tech credits, as should be expected from a Walton production, are very good, particularly his lovely set of hunter greens and whites. Style is a vital thing, to paraphrase Wilde, as Walton surely knows.