The Importance of Being Earnest

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, is putting on a silky-smooth version of Oscar Wilde’s classic satire, now through December 3. Although the witty dialog keeps coming and coming, you dare not do more than chuckle or you’ll miss the next line. The show’s directed by Michael Cumpsty, whom Princetonians may remember as Henry Higgins in McCarter Theatre’s excellent My Fair Lady a few years back.

Importance of Being Earnest

Sam Lilja & Liesel Allen Yeager, photo by T. Charles Erickson

And here are a few of those timeless lines:

  • The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
  • I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
  • All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.
  • No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.
  • The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Artistic Director John Dias’s program notes say this about Wilde’s brilliant dialog: “We feel both horror and delight when witnessing this expert employment of language—its flexibility and the kind of doubleness of meaning that both masks truth and somehow reveals it.”

If you haven’t seen this play recently—or if by some mishap you’ve never seen it—this is a sparkling version. The two leads, friends Algernon Moncrieff (played by Sam Lilja) and Jack Worthing (Federico Rodriguez) are especially strong, and Liesel Allen Yeager’s Cecily Cardew is a delightful flirt.

The men fall in love, and though the women are willing, circumstances are not. How they sort out the absurdity of  Jack’s dubious origins—as a baby, he was found in a handbag in Victoria Station (“The line is immaterial!”)—and the women’s outré determination to marry men named Earnest . . . well you’ll have to experience those pleasures for yourself.

Excellent scenery from Charlie Corcoran and costumes from Jess Goldstein.

In a before-the-show talk, cast member Henry Vick (perfect as Algie’s super-discreet butler) reminds audience members that only a few months after this play opened in London to great acclaim in 1895, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency with men and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. He never wrote another play.

Today, 117 years since Wilde’s death in Paris, a penniless man, we can reflect on how Victorian society, which he skewered so lightheartedly in Earnest, would seem to have had the last word, yet the fact that audiences still delight in his work and flock to see it  suggests a different outcome.

The Lion in Winter

lion-in-winter-cast

Rear: Dee Hoty, Michael Cumpsty; front: Hubert Point-Du Jour, Noah Averbach-Katz; photo: Amanda Crommett

It’s Christmas 1183. The succession to the English throne is in disarray.

The reasons are well laid out for you in this production at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, which I recently saw in preview (opening night is November 18). If you go—and for many reasons the play is well worth seeing—the problems in the second act will most likely have been resolved by director Tyne Rafaeli.

James Goldman’s 1966 play exposed deep schisms in the English court as Henry II (played by Michael Cumpsty) reached the “advanced” age of 50. He is intent upon preserving his empire, which includes England and provinces in France, especially the jewel, Aquitaine, acquired through his marriage to the elegant, passionate Eleanor (Dee Hoty). While he holds court in France, she has been imprisoned in an English castle for the past decade for treachery against Henry. She’s just arrived at the Chinon castle, released temporarily to celebrate Christmas in the viper-riddled bosom of her family.

The couple’s oldest son has died, and they are left with an unpromising trio of sons: Richard (KeiLyn Durrel Jones), Geoffrey (Hubert Point-Du Jour), and the youngest, John (Noah Averbach-Katz). Sullen warrior Richard (the Lionhearted) is the queen’s choice to succeed Henry, but the king wants the childish and rather dim John to follow him. For some reason that even he cannot understand, the scheming Geoffrey is overlooked by everyone, a non-entity in a family of manipulative power brokers.

All five of them are plotting and counter-plotting, negotiating and undermining, and trying their best to strike secret deals with the visiting 18-year-old French King Philip (Ronald Peet). Philip agrees to every plot. Why not? This is first-rate entertainment. If they tear each other apart, as every indication suggests they will, he can step in and pick up the pieces.

Henry and Eleanor’s relationship is the real heart of the play, and it has been complicated by Eleanor’s young step-daughter Alais (pronounced “Alice” and played by Madeleine Rogers), who has a long-running affair with Richard. Cumpsty and Hoty are strong in their roles, and play off each other beautifully—believable antagonists whose love still breaks through, time to time. He was a teenager when she first saw him at the French court, “with a mind like Aristotle and a body like Mortal Sin.” Were their sons ever more than pawns in their dangerous game?

Despite the deadly seriousness of the characters’ plotting, the play has quite a few lines intended to draw laughter and they did. Under Rafaeli’s direction, Act I perked along smoothly. Act II lost energy and felt over-long. I trust they will tighten that up.

Kristen Robinson’s scenic design nicely reinforces the king’s reference to the family as “jungle creatures,” and Andrea Hood’s costumes—especially for Eleanor—are gorgeous. Alais is a pale waif beside her. For tickets, call the box office at 732-345-1400 or visit the box office online.