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The Weir at TriState
Tower of Babble at Bank Street
The Importance of Being Earnest at Holmdel
Zoo Story at Black Box
And Then There Were None at Shadowlawn
Butterflies are Free at Shadowlawn
Bus Stop at Monmouth Players
Diary of Anne Frank at TriState
A Life in the Theater at Two River


The Week of July 18 - 25, 2003

Importance Of Being Earnest A Classy Comedy Oscar Wilde's wit well served in Holmdel

By Philip Dorian

In The importance of Being Earnest, a character comments on a line just spoken: 'It is perfectly phrased,' he says. No assessment of Oscar Wilde's 1805 masterpiece could be more succinct - or more accurate. From opening scene to closing, Wilde's cultivated wit never falters: every speech, every line, is... well, perfectly phrased. This is one of the classiest comedies in the English language, and the Holmdel Theatre Company is equally classy for even attempting it. Their attempt is anything but in vain; it is an admirable production.

The plot is tissue thin. In the comedy-of-manners Wilde himself sub-titled a 'trivial comedy for serious people,' the Irish playwright employed farce and even elements of melodrama to send up contemporary London society. Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Gabiano) poses as Jack Worthing (Clifford Sofield)'s fictitious brother Ernest in order to court Jack's ward Cecily Cardew (Lea Eckert). Visiting them is Lady Bracknell (Eric Garcia) who opposes Jack's marriage to her daughter Gwendolyn (Angela DeMatteo) because of his uncertain lineage. Via several contrived plot twists, Algernon's deception is short-lived, Jack's parentage is deemed respectable and the couples are happily united at plays end.

The spirit of the play lies in what the characters say rather than on what they do. As a critic of the time wrote, 'they speak a kind of beautiful nonsense, the language of high comedy.' Holmdel director Ken Wiesinger recognizes that the language is the star of Earnest, and his production supports that belief. This is an intelligent staging, which is not to say it is stodgy or cold. Wiesinger's respect for the play is obvious, and his cast generally strikes the right balance between playing for laughs and for meaning.

Gabiano and Sofleld are a smooth team. With polished upper crust accents, pinpoint timing and seeming ease, they miss not a nuance of the good-natured badinage between the two friends. If Sofield's Jack is the straight man, it's due partly to the slant of the writing and partly to the high style and expressive performance of Gabiano, whose face is a pliable relief map. With big, dark 3-D eyes that light up with delight at his characters deviltry, Gabiano does double- and triple-takes, strikes jaunty poses and presents an Algernon who enjoys every minute of his existence.

Gwendolyn and Cecily are shamelessly, however innocently, flirtatious, and DeMatteo and Eckert are both excellent in their scenes with the men. DeMatteo's Gwendolyn is properly refined, exuding finishing-school charm; she and Sofield are a proper, proper pair. Eckert is believably bubbly, barely able to contain Cecily's 17-year-old ebullience, Her love for the older (here, maybe a bit too older) Algernon is more like a crush, but she (and DeMatteo) look so absolutely smashing in demurely appealing late 19th century dresses, that any such cavils go by the board. Wilde is spoofing the gender-power (it's hardly sexual) of such pampered, privileged young women over equally vacuous men, and the four play it just fine. In their lengthy scene together, the two women are less effective, falling into an "anything you can do I can do better" acting trap. They take cues from each others performances rather than their characters, and falsetto squeaky-toys result. But with the suitors, the individual irrepressibility returns.

There is an Ill-advised, occasionally observed tradition of men playing Lady Bracknell, one of the all-time great female character roles. Lady Bracknell's scenes are lengthy, rich with content and essential to the play. Eric Garcia plays her in Holmdel as pure caricature. He moves, looks and acts more like Norman Schwarzkopf than like a self-satisfied dowager, notwithstanding his painted cheeks and outsized pointy bosom. He even wields Lady Bracknell's cane like a swagger stick, completing the image. Garcia played the same role in college; it might have been a lark then and there, but this is now and here.

The play more than survives. As Miss Prism, Mary Lawrence is equal tads under-prim and over-glamorous, and Stephen Hirsekorn overacts Reverend Chasuble, but their significance in the play's unlikely wrapup is well served regardless. Bob Senkewicz brings more than meets the eye to the two below-stairs butler roles. Adam Hayek's set designs are excellent; the arched backdrop goes from a luxuriously draped drawing room to an airy outdoor garden with ease. Rose Riccardi's lighting complements the transition, and the 1890s costumes, whether collected, designed, sewn, whatever by Rachel Harris, are a visual highlight of the show.

The aural highlights are Oscar Wilde's endless run of elegant bon mots. On an accepted marriage proposal: "Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty.' And about women who flirt with their own husbands: "It looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public." One's clean linen... perfectly phrased.

'The Importance of Being Earnest' plays Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 3 through July 26 at the Duncan Smith Theater on the grounds of Holmdel High School. Tickets are $18 ($12 for students and seniors) and may be reserved at (732) 946-0427.

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Bob Senkewicz / Howell, New Jersey /