Opening their tenure as Brooklyn’s sole rep company, Brave New World Repertory Theatre played a savvy production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the South Slope’s MadArts Studios in September. Royston Coppenger directed Oscar Wilde’s blithe jibe at social mores, featuring solid acting (the cast’s creds include Law and Order and TV soaps, Equus on Broadway, and teaching stints at NYU, Julliard, and Brooklyn College) and some livid comic turns, with a wealth of can-do production values. Now, a year after inception, BNW is set to build on intriguing plans to broaden both the scope and the scape of Brooklyn theater.
Tucked down MadArts’ corridors in a pocket auditorium, Earnest opened with a spare set (a few pieces of opulent furniture; a loaded tea stand; a birdcage), wisping offstage piano music, and Algernon (John Morgan)’s banter with his servant, Lane (Joe Salgo). Huffing caddishly from the recamier to the cucumber sandwiches, Morgan lent Algernon an easy charm and breezy dexterity that he’d keep on cue over the play’s three acts: “In matters of grave importance,” Algernon reminds us, “style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” For Algie, twin penchants for deception and romantic hijinx keep boredom at bay, recalling critic John Lahr’s point that “at his most frivolous, Wilde was his most inspired.”
Jack (Thom Garvey) appears unexpectedly, and quickly reveals himself as Algernon’s country cousin and his foil. With a life as rife with deception though still willing to grasp at moral weight in matters of love, Garvey’s Jack was the production’s one arcing role. His burnished, smoked enunciation grew familiar, even bold—as if earnestness had any business in a mirth of Earnest’s ilk.
The rest of BNW’s cast, meanwhile, seemed bent on another Lahrism: “Parody is skepticism in action.” Lady Bracknell (Wendy Waterman, in fine fettle on opening night) cut a wake of pomposity and contempt, while Gwendolen (Claire Beckman) played coy for a hot second before chucking it to romp in self-interest.
Earnest fawns mockingly on couple love, returning to that predictable theme like a hummable melody. But its fey attitude seethes with what’s not seen: their loves will only marry a given name, and both Algie and Jack rely on some imaginary man to relieve themselves of social responsibilities. Algie names his Bunbury, and when he speaks of Bunburying, it’s not a far step to the playwright’s sexual preferences. Wilde built his language structure on glittering facades, making his manner his metier as he spoofed the pretense of surfaces. From his plays to the absurdist theater that would follow, is a short step, as indicated in this early exchange between master and servant:
-I hope tomorrow is a fine day, Lane.
-It never is, sir.
-Lane, you’re a perfect pessimist.
-I do my best to give satisfaction, sir.
Earnest’s point is to skirt all issues, which might be the opposite of ignoring them, and BNW went at it with eager chops. When curt Lady Bracknell first appeared, she was wearing one of the production’s two stealth weapons: the smashing ladies’ outfits of costume designer Harris Pontikis. Where Algie and Jack had opened the play in tame suits (they’d both switched to swank by the late act), Lady B gave maximum show, hatted, shawled, bejewelled, a fountain of crème tones and textures, drippingly gauche—and her outfit opened a clothes parade that culminated with Gwendolen and Cecily in a visual outrage of pinks and florals, crossing verbal swords and honing the art of the high snipe. A well-earned nod, too, goes to set designs by Amy Ilias and Angela Murphy: the wall of Algie’s sitting room reversed into the rose garden where Earnest’s romantic shenanigans tumbled out.
The production wielded its other stealth weapon in this garden, with the tandem antics of Miss Prism (Cynthia Babak) and Dr. Chasuble (John Tyrell) spinning their flirtation to a delicious extreme: Pew’s pinched delights and titters; Chasuble’s incessant body language piling gestures against his lurching, lofting voice. They raised big laughs, and set up Gwendolen and Cecily’s cat fight, spurred by their misconception that they’ve been proposed to by the same man:
-On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.
-This is not time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.
-I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.
And this mere minutes after they’d met and, with delight, adopted first name protocol. But nothing lasts forever, and soon—over tea, cake and a cringe-inducing excess of sugar—everything that a name holds gives them a tailor-made happiness (ever ready to have the last word, Lady Bracknell scored with “I dislike arguments of any kind, they are always vulgar, and often convincing.”), and Earnest wrapped with its eponymous last line.
Earnest’s brilliant backhand is that Wilde tuned it as a pleasure, beyond meaning or parsing, making its impertinences all the more pertinent when its author’s personal history is taken into account. Critic Lahr has said that “Frivolity displaced Wilde’s anxiety,” and within its polish and hilarity, Earnest’s motivations are self-consciousness, artifice, hypocrisy and boredom (in a four act early version, Algernon courted Cecily for financial gain). Wilde’s a hero of our time; his monument in Père Lachaise, strewn with notes and tokens, is a startling locus of displaced human affection and need—and it’s his self-destructive daring that makes him hyper-recognizable today. His plays premiered as all the rage, with his social exploits the talk of London; then a very public trial raked his homosexuality over the coals of the day’s self-satisfied condemnation. Prison, and no more plays; just “De Profundis,” the long letter to the royal who jilted him, and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” in which he reminds us that “each man kills the thing he loves.”
BNW clearly has their grasp on work that entertains while rewarding any curiosity applied to it. They’d read Earnest early this year in a member’s sitting room; the arch interplay between Gwen and Cecily ran razor sharp, double dunked in saccharine and venom. That winter reading series was to build repertoire (in other homes they read Richard III, Hedda Gabbler, Anne Nelson’s The Guys, and Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing) and to warm up their audience, after they’d debuted as a company with a lively blend of Shakespeare scenes at BWAC’s Pier Show on the Red Hook waterfront in September ’03.
For their 2005 salon series, BNW will continue to read plays in company members’ homes, says producing artistic director, Claire Morgan. Their next full production, Harold Pinter’s Old Times, will run at MadArts in May. “And we just got the green light from the Flatbush Development Corp for an open air performance of To Kill a Mockingbird during September’s Flatbush Frolic,” says Morgan, “with the play on two adjacent front porches, and a third porch directly across the wide road.”