Tuesday, February 19, 2008

An Optimistic Review: Theater Ten Ten's "The Importance of Being Earnest"

From Left to Right: Vanessa Morosco, Christopher Michael Todd,
Cristiane Young (seated), David Jacks, and Sheila Joon
in Theater Ten Ten's production of Oscar Wilde's
"The Importance of Being Earnest"
Photo Courtesy of LAB Photography

Oscar Wilde's play "The Importance of Being Earnest" subverts respectability, outrages convention, and makes all that is serious trivial. In short, it is delicious.

Theater Ten Ten's tasty new version of the classic play serves up two hours of sumptuous silliness. Rather than playing "Earnest" with a solemnly absurd decorum as many celebrated performances of the show have done in the past, Ten Ten sticks to farce, keeping the fare light and the pace buoyant. Thus, the show is over before you realize its begun, yet you still go home feeling satisfied and full.

I shall dispense with any lengthy synopsis of the play's ridiculous goings-on as by Wilde's own admission the "plot is slight" and any particular affinity for the story is of little consequence to our enjoyment of it. At its core, the play is an unraveling of society's deceptions, a task for which Wilde's lacerating wit was as ideally suited as Moliere's. On the surface, "Importance" sustains a bit about two do-nothing aristocrats masquerading under the assumed name of "Earnest", who fall in love with a pair of young women as shallow as themselves. The only problem is that once the dandies resolve to reveal their true identities they discover that their fiancées agreed to marry them in large part because they believed their names to be "Earnest". Of course, madcap machinations and hilarity ensues and everyone ends up married in the end.

Why, you may rightly ask, did The Brooklyn Optimist venture from his beloved borough to patronize a play in Manhattan? The reason is that Ten Ten's production is the collaborative work of a proud Brooklyn Heights couple, Judith Jarosz and her husband David Fuller. Jarosz, as director, along with Fuller, as set designer (and supporting actor), deftly orchestrate a simple staging of the play that shrewdly underplays its artistry so that their superbly selected cast can shine.

And shine they do! Most striking are the show's female leads, Vanessa Morosco and Sheila Joon. Morosco, who plays the socialite Gwendolyn Fairfax, is an arresting presence on stage, who rightfully exudes confidence in her craft. A relative newcomer to New York theater, Morosco radiates that ineffable quality known as star power - a quality that is certain to win her many more significant roles.

Joon, who slips into the part of Cecily Cardew, delights as the play's ingenue. Striking a nuanced balance between starry-eyed naiveté and nymphette sizzle, Joon is a smart comedienne, who is just as adept at making us laugh as she is at luring us into laughing at her.

Christopher Michael Todd and David Jacks, who portray the two foppish faux Earnests, enjoy strong chemistry with their love interests, and often the play is strongest when the couples are left alone on stage. The men also provide a fine counterpoint to one another, Todd with his repertoire of wonderfully befuddled expressions, and Jacks with his devilish delivery of the preposterous epigrams that inspire them.

The supporting cast deserves praise too. Greg Horton is particularly funny as a country vicar, making the most of a small role that could easily have passed unnoticed. David Fuller craftily incarnates two distinctly different butlers and Talaura Harms is amusing as a governess on the verge of spinsterhood. Last, but not least, Christiane Young, who as the dread Lady Bracknell has many of the play's funniest lines, well incarnates what P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster often describes as the type of formidable aunt who chews broken glass and howls upon the occasion of a full moon.

My fellow Brooklynites, unless you are utterly averse to laughter, it's worth braving Manhattan for Theater Ten Ten's "The Importance of Being Earnest". The play runs until March 9th at 1010 Park Avenue between 84th and 85th Street. For tickets, visit Ten Ten's website or call the theater's box office at 212.288.3246 ext.3.

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