By Oscar Wilde
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Directed by Dorothy Neumann
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
“There’s such a vibration in the name ‘Earnest'”, the lady muses, as she caresses the name lovingly in her mind and tastes it deliciously on her tongue while uttering it aloud. Earnest, she ponders again, focusing not on the gentleman beside her, no– all this rapturous delight is over the name. The gentleman offers another name, his given one, hoping for a similar reaction, but the name sits flat on her tongue. No vibration there, she turns away with derision. No, it definitely must be Earnest. This delicious little moment in The Importance of Being Earnest, now playing at Theater on the Run, is a reminder of how Oscar Wilde is both classical and ahead of his time simultaneously-this scene, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s rumination on the name Juliet predates the 1960’s flower children’s emphasis on names and hints of the 1990’s New Age vibrations. Wilde’s wit is timeless and eternal and simply must be relished at every opportunity. Fortunately, the New Island Project’s perfectly cast production provides one here that hits all the marks with delightful flair.
Paired off again after their wildly successful run in Mojo Mickybo are Christopher Dinolfo as John, whose alternate ego is Earnest in the city, and Michael Innocenti as his friend Algernon who takes on the nom de jour Earnest for a romp in the country. The chemistry of these two is palpable, energetic and refreshing. Dinolfo has the most engaging stage presence you could want in a John/Jack/Earnest. At the onset, his impish eyes and bearing point to his being a rogue, an imposter -he’s obviously hiding something and not telling the whole story. When he confesses and tells all, he’s instantly transformed into the most endearing huggable waif that you wanted to slap just moments before-he’s quite engaging. As is Dinolfo, a showman master pianist, wolfing down delicately made cucumber sandwiches intended for his aunt, living so vicariously through his friend’s stories that he takes on the name “Earnest” for his own country visit.
Matching the gentlemen in perfect counterpoint are love interests Erin Buchanan as Gwendolyn and Suzanne Edgar as Cecily. Buchanan has a buoyant appeal and matches her Earnest perfectly. Seemingly all bounce and bubbly on the outside, she erupts into molten rage when confronted with what seems to be “the other woman.” Director Dorothy Neumann sets up the particularly effective tension when the women force themselves to behave with propriety by having tea only to sabotage each other with such verbal jabs and undercuts that they might as well have been rolling on the floor pulling each other’s hair. Neumann has them both sitting across from each other in real time with tension mounting in dead silence. Even Melissa Hmelnicky as the parlor maid gets to shine in those awkward moments, stuck between these two silent simmering volcanoes, unable to leave before serving the tea, grimacing while trying to smile sweetly in anticipatory servitude. It’s quite an experience.
In this playful dance of mistaken identities, enter Barbara Klein as Lady Bracknell, the no-nonsense battle-ax mother from Hell, sporting full plated armor of propriety and fortitude. She’s having none of the shenanigans and looks out for her daughter’s interest like a ferocious mama bear. Gwendolyn tries to resist her mother’s demands initially, but can’t help but wither under the glare of that formidable presence and eventually retreats when directed. She’s perfect for the role, working each scene with polish and snap. Finally, there are no minor roles, considering what the always rock solid Rosemary Regan does with a few lines and moments as Miss Prism, so prim and proper but with flirtatious bespectacled eyes firmly set on the unsuspecting Reverend.
The production occurs in three acts, usually a “no-no” for today’s instant, pressure-cooked audience, but like a delicious meal, Earnest simply must be savored. The set design by Eric and Kerry Lucas works effectively in transforming from a city parlor to a country estate with the movement of the large doorway to another side of the stage altering the entrances and exits. As long as the second intermission is short enough-it shouldn’t be more than a 5-minute stretch-that’s acceptable. The costumes designed by William Puscilowsky are exceptionally eloquent and stylish, and there was even a candelabrum on the piano– everything about the production’s look worked except the rather cheap looking dollar store flower arrangements-not sure what happened there, but they could have used a serious upgrade to match the production’s overall elegance.
The New Island Project, an offshoot of the Keegan Theatre, “was created to produce Irish plays… [and] to bring new and contemporary plays to the forefront as well as shedding new light on well known classics,” which explains what seems to be diametrically opposed styles of its recent productions. Co-Artistic Directors, Eric Lucas and Kerry Waters Lucas have given the project their all, with even more to come, including a world premiere original piece by Eric Lucas in the upcoming season. The astonishingly and consistently high quality of work from this new company raises the bar of expectation for the entire metro region. Yes, I’m a fan, and if you haven’t seen their work, stop by and see for yourself, and that’s in earnest.
(Running time: Approx 2:30) The Importance of Being Earnest, playing at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run in Arlington, Va, through July 7th. Showtimes are Thursday -Saturday 8pm and Saturday matinees 2pm (No Sunday performances) Tickets: $20. For additional information, call 703-.892.0202 x 7, or consult the website.