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November 21, 2004

Take a walk on the Wilde side with UT's witty, gender-bending Earnest

Score one for rapidity. UT's production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest knows no bound to its speedy upward trajectories. Its actors rattle off classic one-liners and unforgettable Wildesque dialogue with such fleeting abandon that one feels privileged to hear brilliance and inadequate to resist being dominated by it. I left the theater thankful I had read the script just hours before, lest I lose myself in Wilde's satirical cleverness and incisive social criticism, entirely unable to re-visualize it for my own enjoyment

First-year in the College Harry Nangle debuts admirably as Jack Worthing, Wilde's hapless protagonist. Jack, suitor to the lovely Gwendolyn Fairfax (played expressively by second-year Emily Boyd), undergoes such swings of disposition that his anger, frustration, awkwardness, cynicism, and overt fear of Gwendolyn's domineering mother Lady Bracknell seem to usurp his character. His cynicism is infused at each twist of the plot with revealing facial expressions, discontinuous bodily gestures, and stutteringly elegant bursts of monologue. In short, Nangle handles the difficult role quite well.

A moment that perfectly captures Nangle's performance comes while countered in the first scene against the witticisms of colleague Algernon Montcrieff, played by first-year Michael Stevens, also making his UT debut. Nangle saves the forced and contrived beginnings of the scene by imbuing his character with that scintillation of expression that should be so demanded of actors. When his Jack informs Algernon that he has invented a fake brother—Earnest—to serve as a pretext for evading the vacuous countryside in favor of cosmopolitan London, he launches into an overly defensive discourse on why he has invented Earnest, why this is a good thing, and what he proposes to do with his creation. He ends his mouthful, exasperated and matter-of-factly, with a "that is the whole truth, pure and simple."

Prior to third-year Chris Martin's entrance as Lady Bracknell, Stevens's Algernon leaves a bit to be desired. The scene's forced quality comes from Stevens having deftly memorized Algernon's brilliant Lord Henry-esque lines without having attached to them the authority so stipulated by their nature. His Algernon seems too capricious, too goofy, too undistinguished. Scene one almost seems to demand that Algernon exhibit not just the dexterity of speech that Wilde's Lord Henry shows in Dorian Gray, but also the impression that he owns the scene against the bumbling insecurity of poor Jack.

Perhaps his Austin Powers-like entrance at the play's commencement struck a cord of discontentment for me. Or perhaps the way that Stevens's lines rolled effortlessly and inexpressively down his chin left me wanting something more. I almost felt like Manservant Lane (played by fourth-year in the College Keith Skretch, who also takes the role of country bumpkin Butler Merriman, a role that is worth the $10 admission fee) added more in the way of expressive authenticity than did Stevens's Algernon, who clearly had the more favorable lines. By the time Lady Bracknell so mercifully arrived in scene one, I had made up my mind that Stevens seemed more reminiscent of Saturday Night Live's Tim Meadows-fashioned Ladies' Man character than a self-contained yet significant, cynical Brit.

Enter Lady Bracknell, however, and the show reaches a full gallop. Stevens is suddenly on key with his disposition and timing. The nasally booming voice of Martin's Bracknell sends Jack into fearful convulsions, while the audience erupts in laughter as diatribe after self-righteous diatribe spews forth from the portly "woman," a performance that would leave most theater laymen out of breath. The part could have only been played by a talented veteran, and Martin does, of course, a magnificent job. No amount of critical accolade in our humble publication will do justice to his performance. Just slap down the $10 and take a worthwhile peek.

Before I conclude, let me just say that UT's favorite coppertop Ian Romain's brief cameo as the gardener is one of the show's more memorable moments. The theatrical clip, while brief, shows promise, and I hope to see Ian in future UT extravaganzas.

The Importance of Being Earnest is playing on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Francis X. Kinahan Third Floor Theater. Go have a ball, and do be so gracious as to thank the director, fourth-year Jack Tamburri.