EmptySouth Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, Costa Mesa, Calif.
Through March 9
It's every critic's dream to say something Wilde and crazy about an Oscar Wilde play. It's every critic's fate not to be able to do so. Suffice it to say that, in this case, South Coast Repertory has mounted a production of the venerable comedy that is suitable for the whole family. For this is not a production that seeks to mine the darker sides of Victorian morality -- a fact underlined by the hurried run-through of an innocuous Gilbert and Sullivan patter song that serves at the end as an unnecessary encore.
Although it seems at times as if some of the actors, few of whom have a convincing English accent, have wandered in from concurrent, parallel universe productions -- none of them English -- in the end they come together to create a genuine feeling of ensemble. It helps immeasurably that, even during a slow first act, Wilde's relentless outpouring of one-liners makes sure that the audience gets involved in the fun; in this case, it is almost before the actors do.
The first act, of course, is when the improbable details of the farce are introduced, along with the two Earnests, Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Gotch) and Jack Worthing (Tommy Schrider), Gwendolen Fairfax (Christine Marie Brown) and the indomitable Lady Bracknell (Kandis Chappell).
In the second act, Cecily Cardew (Elise Hunt), Miss Prism (Amelia White) and Rev. Chasuble (Richard Doyle) enter the scene, and preparations are complete for the riotous resolution of Act 3.
The danger with Wilde is that, if sufficient care is not taken, the dialogue rattles along almost interchangeably among the characters. Fortunately, director Warner Shook makes certain that each actor delivers their lines with individual style and also moves about the spacious stage with distinctly different energy.
The best movers in the cast are Gotch, with his quick, graceful balletic jumps and hops, and Schrider, with his stiff and stilted bounding. In Gotch's case, his movement is complemented by a verbally astonishing performance that becomes more magnificent by the moment. In Schrider's case, it helps offset the evening's least convincing accent.
But despite the brave efforts by Gotch and Schrider, the night belongs to the two young ladies with minds of their own. Brown's Gwendolen is so stunningly delivered and underlined with such knowing glances and graceful movements that I could have listened to her all night.
Hunt's Cecily holds the stage equally well, her distinctive blond beauty, size and charisma delivering the usual verbal punches with delightfully pugnacious power.
However, while Chappell tries hard to amuse the audience with her dipthonged pronouncements and studied glances, she succeeds little until the end, when her "Prism! Where is that baby?" brings down the house.
Speaking of Prism, White is totally amazing, taking what can so easily be a throwaway role and instead creating a real human being who ratchets up the comedy while also providing a touch of humanity at the end. She is almost matched in this by Doyle's incongruously lustful Chasuble, and the whole cast is exceedingly well served by John-David Keller's two butlers.
All of this hilarity takes place on Michael Olich's wonderfully laid-out stage that allows the players, pleasantly costumed by Nephelie Andonyadis (on what looks like a tight budget), to come and go casually, allowing the action to proceed seamlessly.
As a final delicious element, Michael Roth's original music, raucously and delightfully quoting Gilbert and Sullivan, introduces each of the acts (over an unfortunately strident loudspeaker system).
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
Presented by South Coast Repertory
Playwright: Oscar Wilde
Director: Warner Shook
Set designer: Michael Olich
Costume designer: Nephelie Andonyadis
Lighting designer: Lap-Chi Chu
Original music/music direction: Michael Roth
Dialect coach: Philip D. Thompson
Casting: Joanne DeNaut
Dramaturg: Linda Sullivan Beatty
Algernon Moncrieff: Michael Gotch
Jack Worthing: Tommy Schrider
Lady Bracknell: Kandis Chappell
Gwendolen Fairfax: Christine Marie Brown
Cecily Cardew: Elise Hunt
Miss Prism: Amelia White
Rev. Canon Chasuble: Richard Doyle
Lane/Merriman: John-David Keller
Footman: Bryan Vickery