By Joseph Hurley
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, by Oscar Wilde, a reading directed by Charlotte Moore at the Irish Repertory Theatre as part of the New York Public Library’s "A Man of Some Importance: Oscar Wilde and the Performing Arts." Dec. 4.
Is Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest" the single funniest comedy in the English language? The overflow crowd at the Irish Repertory Theatre, where the group’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, guided a dream cast through an inspired reading of the text, thought so, if the unceasing laughter that filled the house from start to finish was any indication.
The event was part of the ongoing observance of the 100th anniversary of the Irish writer’s death in Paris, an ambitious and admirable project of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, a venture that will continue through April.
Since the Performing Arts Library is currently undergoing intensive reconditioning and was therefore unavailable for the series, the organizations’ program director, Alan J. Pally, was forced to search for venues beyond the library system. Moore and her partner, Ciaran O’Reilly, volunteered the theater on West 22nd Street for three evenings, the second of which took place this week, when actress Blair Brown headed a glittering cast in a reading of Wilde’s seldom-produced "A Woman of No Importance."
For her performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest," Moore recruited the sort of cast of which directors normally can only fantasize. Barnard Hughes was the Reverend Chasuble, while his wife, Helen Stenborg, was the redoubtable Miss Prism. Dana Ivey was an unforgettable Lady Bracknell, with Bruce Norris providing an ideal John Worthing, aka "Earnest," a crafty young Londoner who is, as he puts it, "Earnest in the country and Jack in town."
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Heather O’Neill was a sterling Cecily Cardew, while Moore drew on three members of the cast of the Rep’s current hit revival of Brendan Behan’s "The Hostage" to round out her "Earnest" crew. Erik Singer and Derdriu Ring, the lovers of Behan’s enduring theatrical carnival, were Algernon Moncrieff and Bracknell’s daughter, the Hon. Gwendolyn Fairfax, with James A. Stephens, the imperious, unforgettable Monsewer of "The Hostage," doing yeoman service as the stately manservant, then, later on, doubling as the loyal Merriman.
If there is such a thing as an actorproof comedy, it is very probably Oscar Wilde’s 1895 success, "The Importance of Being Earnest," which was both loved and admired from its debut performance at London’s St. James Theatre.
Even if mediocre actors cannot kill "The Importance," inspired performers can sometimes give it a gloss that lifts it to the theatrical stratosphere, which is what Moore’s shining cast accomplished.
The actors, seated on a diagonal line of chairs positioned to accommodate the Irish Rep’s bifurcated audience space, with the main auditorium set at a right angle to what’s come to be known as the "jury box."
The performers, onstage throughout, stayed in place, listening, watching, and obviously enjoying the work of their colleagues, never moving, except, in a clever gambit cooked up by the inventive Moore, just before a particular intimate scene, such as the "interview scene" between Worthing and Lady Bracknell, they might stand and shift places to attain greater intimacy. A tiny conceit, to be sure, but an enormously effective and surprisingly touching one.
Charlotte Moore’s loving and intimate approach to "The Importance of Being Earnest" served as a reminder of just what a flawless and wondrous work it is, and, by extension, what a welcome service the Library for the Performing Arts is doing by highlighting the literary heritage of Oscar Wilde, including some of the less familiar material.