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The Importance of Being Earnest

Casting in Earnest

By Oscar Wilde
Hudson Warehouse, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, New York, N.Y.
Friday, July 11, 2014, (Fourth step, right side)
Directed by Nicholas Martin-Smith

My son Jonathan phoned me this past spring with a secret. The Hudson Warehouse theater company, for which he is an artist in residence, was scheduling Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest for the summer season and…

And I cut him off. "You're playing Algernon?" Affirmative. I'm not sure if Jonathan was born to play Algernon Moncrieff or Wilde wrote the part with Jonathan Minton in mind. But that was only the half of it. As Jonathan carefully explained that this was still preliminary, I cut him off again. "Is George playing Jack Worthing?" That would be George K. Wells, another artist in residence for the company and a talented actor we had come to know through Hudson Warehouse's productions of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Richard III two years ago. Affirmative.

Algernon in three-piece gray suit and red striped dressing gown with hand on his and other hand across his stomach, Gwendolen in blue and white striped Victorian hat with lace trim and puffy hat, hands folded at her belly, Lady Bracknell in dress and straw hat with red bow sitting on a chair in the backround, where you see parquade floor, stone railing, and trees.
Algernon (Jonathan Minton) comments on how smart his cousin Gwendolen (Amber Bogdewicz) looks, and Lady Bracknell (Linus Gelber) listens in the Hudson Warehouse production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in New York City's Riverside Park. Below, Cecily (Patrina Caruana) is caught between her guardian Jack Worthing (George K. Wills, left) and her love interst Algernon, whom she believes is Jack's younger brother Earnest. Photographs by Susane Lee, Hudson Warehouse.

Talk about perfect casting. Though it was, as my son said, all still preliminary, we scheduled our summer around this news. Finally, after a Friday afternoon drive to New York City (making sure we beat the Washington, D.C., get-away-for-the-weekend gridlock to get there in time), we settled onto our cushioned seats on the steps of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park for one of our most anticipated shows of the year.

Thus it was that we were so blindsided. Minton and Wells are perfectly fine, as we expected. And the whole production is perfectly delightful, with director Nicholas Martin-Smith's surgeon-like cut of the script whipping along in two hours without intermissions thanks to his click-click pacing. But for sheer perfection, that accolade goes to Linus Gelber as Lady Bracknell.

Short of stature but larger than life, Gelber seems to channel Queen Victoria in his performance—not the queen herself but her statue in London's Victoria Monument come to life with a reign of terror in her aspect but something vaguely amusing about her. From his perfectly coiffed silver wig through his mauve-patterned dress to his high heels (the production's gorgeously authentic costumes are by designer Emily Rose Parman), Gelber captures the play's description of Lady Bracknell as Gorgon and "mamma." She is a fiercely prim and proper, society-conscious matriarch with utmost command of the absurd logic that governs this play. Gelber plays Lady Bracknell perfectly straight: no hamming, no I'm-really-a-guy winking. Yet, his earnest line readings are so funny, even Wells, consummate stage professional that he is, cracked and turned upstage when Gelber's Bracknell railed on about her trip to Hertfordshire on the luggage train and being forced to tell her husband that their daughter, Gwendolen, was attending "a more than unusually lengthy lecture by the University Extension Scheme on the Influence of a Permanent Income on Thought." When an actor brings the house down—or, in this case, the monument down—on a line like that, you know he's nailed Lady Bracknell. We have seen two international award-winning stage stars (one a man) play Lady Bracknell and two of our favorite actors (both men) in the role, but I've never laughed so hard as I did with Gelber's performance, and I was laughing the whole while at Lady Bracknell herself.

It only makes sense that a perfectly engaging Lady Bracknell should have a perfectly engaging daughter, and Amber Bogdewiecz obliges. She has thoroughly grasped the part like few Gwendolens I've seen, going far beyond the silly socialite to a woman other characters in the play describe as learned and intelligent. I grant, the other characters in this play have suspect judgment, but the hints in Gwendolen's own lines are confirmation, starting with her very first line in response to Algernon's comment that she is dressed smartly: "I am always smart! Am I not, Mr. Worthing?" Jack replies that she is quite perfect. "Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions." In the way she plays these two lines, Bogdewiecz gives us the whole of Gwendolen, openly flirting with Jack, well-trained in the game of socializing, and quite aware of her double entendres. With Gwendolen's next line, defying her mother's command to sit by her, Bogdeweicz establishes the daughter's own steady will power.

It is thus that she is not only fully prepared in accepting Jack's marriage proposal but also coaches him through it with her confident smile. She adeptly maintains her social superiority without seeming mean to Jack's ward in the country, Cecily (portrayed with intelligent naïveté by Patrina Caruana). Bogdewiecz's Gwendolen shows practiced shallowness and sly sophistication, and she earns one of the night's biggest laughs when Jack asks her to wait for him while he goes into the next room in search of the all-important handbag of his nativity: "If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life." In another actress that might come off as ironic stupidity, but Gwendolen is full of such conundrum comments ("I never change, except in my affections") and Bogdewiecz has found them to be a measure of her character's nature as well as her intellect. On that level, we get a Gwendolen we can laugh at and admire.

Bogdewiecz's Gwendolen and Gelber's Lady Bracknell are depths of characterization I'm not sure are always appreciated in a play known for its Wilde wit and satirical logic. If actors merely play the jokes and not the people behind the jokes, they miss out on one of the most important lines in the play. It comes after Worthing explains why he is called Earnest in the city but Jack in the country (where he pretends Earnest is a wicked younger brother so that the upright Jack—guardian to young Cecily—through the ruse of bailing out his brother can travel frequently to London for socializing). "That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple." Replies Algernon: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." That is true of these characters, and that is true of the entire plot in which both Algernon and Jack lie their way through the play only to find out they've been telling the truth all along.

Their opening expository tête-à-tête establishes them as kindred opposites. Minton's Algernon is incredibly full of himself in a witty way, smirking his clever comments with a gleam in his eye, knowing, perhaps, that he is faking his way through life but buying into his own delusion as truth. The trick is getting us, the audience, to actually enjoy being with such a self-absorbed individual, and Minton pulls that off even as he floats around the stage with his red velvet dressing gown flapping about him like Superman's cape. Wells's Jack is incredibly full of himself in a serious way, scowling his moral pronouncements with a rod up his spine. He, too, is faking his way through life but is certainly not aware of it. In opposition to Algernon, he easily wins the audience's sympathy, but the trick is to reveal the real scoundrel that he is without losing any of his veneer of respectability, and Wells pulls that off, maintaining a Marine general's demeanor even as he gets into an argument with Algernon over who has the better constitution for christening.

Cecily in the middle in white blouse and cream dress with arms outstretched, hands holding that of, on the far end,  Jack in black mourning coat and gray pants and holding a black tophat in his right hand, and on this end Algernon with gray vest and pants, blue shirt, and dogcap in his left handBoth actors use a British upper-crust accent, which seems superfluous as Wilde's lines have a musicality about them that, like Shakespeare's verse, is better delivered with honesty than forced dialect. The accent does establish a posh affectation which adds yet another layer of ridiculousness in their battle over muffins and teacakes, a scene that highlights the collaborative chemistry Wells and Minton display. It is the play's silliest scene, but the scene also reveals these two characters at their most human. Algernon settles into a chair to eat muffins in the wake of Gwendolen and Cecily discovering that neither Jack nor Algy are really named Earnest and so leave the two suitors. "How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can't make out," Jack says. "You seem to me to be perfectly heartless." Jack apparently wants to save the muffins for himself, and neither want the tea cakes, so they end up tussling with the plate all over the stage (and when some muffin crumbs fall to the ground, Minton's Algernon looks down as if encountering the scene of a murder yet calculating whether the five-second rule applies to the sidewalk of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument).

I know what I just wrote sounds absurd. Wilde has written one of theater's great "you had to be there" moments, and on this night, a group of 20-somethings were right there, sitting on one of the monument's stone benches alongside the play space and within a few feet of Minton chowing down on muffins at a table. I have no idea if this group planned to be there, but they look as if they were on their way to a Blink-182 concert and just happened upon the performance. They had been watching with cautious incredulity that people would behave in such a manner: actors or not, this was a bunch of poshes dressed in Victorian clothes making a big deal about the name of Earnest. And now one guy is lecturing the other about eating muffins. "Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner," Algernon replies to Jack. "The butter would probably get on my cuffs." Then Minton turns and directly addresses one of the 20-something guys. "One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them." The guy nods, affirming that of course it's the only way to eat them. He and his companions had, on the instance, become caught up in the Wilde logic of The Importance of Being Earnest, and they hung on to every line and every development to the end, becoming part of the truth of this great Wilde world.

When we heard the news last spring of Martin-Smith's "perfect casting" for his production of The Importance of Being Earnest, we didn't imagine just how perfect his casting would be.

Eric Minton
July 17, 2014

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