The Austin Chronicle

Review: City Theatre’s The Importance of Being Earnest

By Bob Abelman, June 8, 2023, 12:00am, All Over Creation

Some of the best playwrights and composers require a specific skill set from actors who dare perform their works.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays demand the actor’s ability to seamlessly transition from prose to poetry and to make iambic pentameter their bitch. Sondheim’s dense and difficult lyrics, ungodly vocal range, and enigmatic melodies command serious singing chops and nerves of steel.

For those venturing into Oscar Wilde’s literary realm of Victorian entitlement and excess – as the City Theatre ensemble does with its current production of his 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest – actors must bring more than just a proper high-society British accent to establish place and privilege. Their performances and production need air.

Impressive breath control is a prerequisite for delivering Wilde’s vast supply of witty, satirical, and often lengthy epigrams with period-appropriate speed, subtle inflection, pomposity, and authority. Failure to do so impairs comic timing and causes pauses, and the late-19th-century elite represented in this play pause for no one. Also, performances need to be complemented by appropriate onstage aesthetics, where design elements – especially scenic and costume – create a lofty atmosphere of luxurious decadence.

The City Theatre has put together an earnest and enjoyable production of this play. But while Karen Sneed’s experience as director, dramaturg, and performer are evident (on the day of my attendance, Sneed stepped into the role of the governess, Miss Prism, for an ill actor), her expertise with HVAC is lacking. The air in this staging of The Importance of Being Earnest is a tad too thin.

The play features two self-absorbed, upper-class friends, Jack (Justin Heller) and Algernon (Zachariah Lenton), and the alter egos they adopt, playfully referred to as “Bunburys,” when traveling between country and city. They do this for the sheer fun of it and to avoid social obligations so they can woo women – in Jack’s case, Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Maddie Scanlan), and for Algernon, Jack’s young ward, Cecily (Angelina Castillo).

All this provides plenty of comedic fodder and opportunity for Wilde to share his wry observations about privilege, arrogance, and repressive values, which are brilliantly personified in his creation of Lady Bracknell (Wendy Zavaleta), Algernon’s monstrously matronly aunt and the mother of Jack’s love interest. The role is typically played by strong, stoic, older women (Dame Judi Dench played her in the 2002 film version, and Dame Edith Evans in the 1952), but she is also often played by men, as much to cater to the British affinity for drag as to reinforce the character’s formidability, which all but obliterates gender.

Casting the talented Zavaleta in the role is intriguing, for she is young, energetic, and so expressive that her Lady Bracknell is more nosy, opinionated gadfly than tyrant. Her portrayal lacks the qualities that hold power over others and circumvents much of the delicious ebb and flow of Wilde’s language. Still, her avoidance of the tropes typically assigned to the role is great fun to watch. As Algernon and Jack, Lenton and Heller are delightfully priggish. But their hard work at establishing this leaves no room for playfulness. As a result, their occasionally plodding delivery of the cascade of witticisms Wilde provides feels weighed down and tends to sound toneless and lacking in spontaneity. This is not at all the case with Scanlan and Castillo’s portrayals of Gwendolen and Cecily. The two bring poised elegance and charm to the roles, and nicely tilt toward their characters’ superficiality without becoming Victorian Kardashians. Their mischievous, sisterly interplay during the third act is worth waiting for.

As the Rev. Canon Chasuble, Scot Friedman is a likable fool and perfect comic foil to Sneed’s starchy and (due to the last-minute substitution) unfortunately uncostumed and on-book Miss Prism. To his credit, Friedman seemed totally undaunted by this and just played through it, allowing us to do the same.

The uncredited costume design does a wonderful job making the other characters look elegant and period appropriate, though the effect is compromised by also uncredited scenic design that fails to create the aforementioned atmosphere of luxurious decadence. Algernon’s London flat and Jack’s country manor house, with their scant mismatched furniture, curtains for walls, and stained carpet, look like off-season rentals. Still, kudos to Artistic Director Andy Berkovsky for keeping Wilde’s wonderful work in the company’s lineup.

City Theatre’s The Importance of Being Earnest

Genesis Creative Collective, 1507 Wilshire, 512/470-1100
Through June 18
Running Time: 2 hrs., 30 mins.

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