STOCKBRIDGE — At the end of director David Auburn’s uneven, at best, production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre, the full company of actors breaks into a dance that sends them swirling and twirling across Bill Clarke’s spacious, spare, but nonetheless elegant, setting to the tune of The Kinks’ “Victoria.” Would that Auburn’s production were as fleet afoot throughout as this dizzying Isadora Wolfe-choreographed finale.
Written and first performed in 1895, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” subtitled “A Trivial Play for Serious People,” was Wilde’s last play. Shortly after its West End opening, Wilde was put on trial, convicted and imprisoned on a charge of “indecency” for his sexual relationship with British poet Lord Alfred Douglas. It has become, over the years, Wilde’s most performed, most familiar play — a deliciously biting, self-aware, epigrammatic send-up of the social conventions and expectations of Victorian society.
At the center of “The Importance of Being Earnest” are two chums — Algernon Moncrieff (Shawn Fagan) and Jack Worthing (a reasonably amiable Mitchell Winter) — who are each in pursuit of two charming young ladies. Jack — a foundling who, as a baby, was left abandoned in a large handbag at Victoria Station — lives in the country and has invented a younger brother named Earnest, who lives in London. Jack uses his creation as a pretext to come to the city in romantic pursuit of Algernon’s first cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Rebecca Brooksher).
His curiosity peaked by the news that Jack, whom he knows only by the name of Earnest, Algernon travels to the countryside to meet Cecily (a perfectly ingenuous Claire Saunders), who is under the tutelage of a governess, Miss Prism (Corinna May), an incipient old maid who proves consequential in unraveling the truth about Jack’s past.
Wilde spins a dizzying clever comedy in which pretense, role-playing, are key within a framework known as life.
Fagan’s not entirely welcome Algernon approaches life with a well-practiced insouciance. He has invented an invalid friend he’s named Bunbury, who lives in the countryside and who provides Algernon with the perfect excuse to avoid whatever obligation may be thrust upon him. Jack is every bit the Bunburyist as is Algernon. What begins as obligation avoidance becomes a cog that is not so simple to remove.
For Wilde, life was not just a cabaret; it was theater on a grand scale. His fashions were designed for him by theater costumers and he often wore grand garden flowers in a buttonhole; a gesture reflected in “Earnest,” when, at one point in the second act, Algernon asks for a rose for his buttonhole. By design, Fagan‘s peacock of an Algernon evokes Wilde — his hair curled over one side of his forehead; a sort of lavender vest and pants in the first act over which he wears a flowing, silky black robe with bold floral prints; his feet in bright blue slippers crowned with sparkling buckles. His self-assured, cocky sense of entitlement is on full display early on as he devours a tray of cucumber sandwiches that have been prepared expressly for his aunt, Lady Augusta Bracknell (Harriet Harris), who is due for tea, accompanied by her daughter, Gwendolen.
After an effortful first act, Auburn’s production gets a decided lift in the second act when the action moves to the countryside and we are introduced to Saunders’ beguiling Cecily, and particularly May’s Prism and David Adkins’ insistently celibate Rev. Canon Chasuble as they dance around the edges of mutual affection.
Brooksher’s Gwendolen is a young woman of propriety and manner. With lovely nuance, Brooksher’s Gwendolen suggests what her mother might well have been like at Gwendolen’s age
Lady Bracknell is described at one point as a gorgon and certainly when Harris unleashes the full deep-throated register of her voice you can sense the emergence of fangs and hair of venomous snakes. Harris is a sublimely engaging, stage-smart actress who is keenly aware of boundaries and nuance. With a narrowing of the eyes, and a smile on her face and in her voice, her Bracknell can be the essence of reassurance — both false and real. Just watch her Bracknell go to work as she interviews Jack in the first act to test his suitability as a suitor for her daughter.
Matt Sullivan does fine double duty as Algernon’s butler, Lane, and Cecily’s butler, Merriman.
For the most part, Auburn’s production moves with steadfast determination. At the same time, this dutifully played “Earnest” misses a cohesive style; a full and complete sense of ensemble that is at one not only among the actors, but also with Wilde’s material.
With a whimsical pre-curtain and intermission soundscape of music by The Raspberries, The Kinks, The Bee Gees, Brian Eno, The Turtles, Mott the Hoople and David Bowie, among others — how could you not want to get up and dance? — Auburn sets us up for a Wildely playful evening that never quite materializes.