Ending his second season as the Long Wharf Theater’s artistic director with Oscar Wilde’s high comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” rather than his previously announced “Much Ado About Nothing,” Doug Hughes presents the most felicitous production he has yet directed in New Haven.
Completely devoted to allowing Wilde’s scintillating flood of words to speak for themselves, Hughes and his more than competent cast have created a stylized simplicity of approach that suits this classic play admirably. If its first act seems almost too careful and low-key, the overall temperature soon rises in act two, and the production spirals into high hilarity in the climactic verbal duel between Jack and Algernon. Act three maintains the bubbling comedic temperature.
Designer Hugh Landwehr abets Hughes’ production with a false plaster proscenium at the rear of the thrust stage within which he creates a different venue for each act — London flat, country manor garden and library. The first act is all golden sunflowers on wallpaper, carpet and draperies (Landwehr does not eschew luxury). Act two is greenery and flowering rose bushes. Act three is a wall of books up which Jack ultimately shins in order to find out what his real name is. All of this allows plenty of room for the actors and for Paul Tazewell’s costumes, which, at their best (for Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell), are fabulous.
Anchoring the production is the small, painfully neat, furiously serious Jack of Jefferson Mays. The more serious he is, the funnier he is. Since Christopher Evan Welch as Algernon is much taller and anything but neat, they make a wonderfully mismatched pair, playing splendidly off one another.
As has often been the case in the past few decades, Lady Bracknell is played by a man. Here he’s Edward Hibbert, perhaps best known as Chesterton on TV’s “Frasier.” Hibbert never camps, simply playing the role straight as a man dressed as a woman. He’s not necessarily any better than a woman would be, but he’s very much more than merely acceptable, never more so than when gazing with quizzical astonishment at the tiny handbag he’s toting as Jack tells Lady Bracknell of his intriguing ancestry.
Margaret Welsh and Meg Brogan as Gwendolen and Cecily are both utterly self-assured young ladies spouting Wilde’s superbly sensible nonsense. Beth Dixon makes as much of Miss Prism as any actress I have seen, though Michael Hayward-Jones is a mite bland as the Rev. Chasuble. Denis Holmes is amusingly aged as both the manservant Lane and the butler Merriman.