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A CurtainUp Review
The Importance of Being Earnest
By Joseph Greene
As you open the program to the Stratford Festival's fourth production of Oscar Wilde's most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, you immediately notice that it is in FOUR acts. How can that be? And who is this Lady Brancaster? Who is Mr. Gribsby? Why is Algernon Montcrief called Algernon Montford? What's going on here anyway?
What's going on is a "new" (read "old") version of what is perhaps the best verbal farce ever written. It appears that when Wilde first submitted the manuscript to his producer, George Alexander, in early 1895, Mr. Alexander wanted a shorter piece. The playwright complied with the producer, who was also the manager of the St. James Theatre. (Some things never seem to change, eh?) So what the audience saw at the premiere on St. Valentines's Day that year, with the producer/manager in the role of Jack Worthing, was the play that many of us have come to love.
The typescript of the urtext of the play that premiered in 1895 was lost until 1953 when it was discovered in, of all places, New Jersey. Not in a railroad station, mind you, nor in a handbag in a perambulator, but close enough for some delicious irony. It is this four act typescript on which the Stratford production is based.
Suffice it to say that this viewer casts his vote with Mr. Alexander for the shorter version. This production clocks in at just under three hours including a twenty minute interval (as we say in Stratford and in London--New Yorkers may feel free to say intermission). One of the great strengths of The Importance of Being Earnest is the dynamic set up by the playwright between character and language from the opening moments (the marvellous banter between Jack and Algy over the cucumber sandwiches sets the tone for the entire performance), a tone which must be sustained by the players.
Unfortunately, this Earnest was too earnest by far. While much of the verbal play still works for the audience, the overall energy level seems to dissipate as the evening progresses. What appears as an almost academic exercise under the direction of Richard Monette, the increasingly successful artistic director of the Festival, and his generally talented company of players merely confirms George Alexander's demand that the four act script be tightened and shortened to three. When Wilde acceded to his producer's demand, he wisely cut the entire Gribsby sub-plot in which Jack Worthing (Ernest in town) has run up a rather significant tab at the Savoy Hotel, a diversion that in no way adds to the comedic structure or themes of the play. Lawyer Gribsby, gamely played by Brian Tree, would never be missed.
Mr. Monette's production sits prettily enough in Douglas Paraschuk's art nouveau environment. The four lovers are well enough portrayed and Patricia Collins' Lady Brancaster (whom we know better as Lady Bracknell) captures the haughty demeanor of this Victorian dame--although memories of William Hutt's wonderful drag portrayal of Lady Bracknell (in the Festival's thrice revived late 70s version of the play) kept intruding