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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Importance of Being Earnest
Novato Theater Company
Review by Patrick Thomas

Gwendolyn Phair and Thomas Peterson
Photo by Jere Torkelson
The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the all-time classics of theatrical comedy. Sure, there are more belly laughs in The Odd Couple or Arsenic and Old Lace and for droll, gentle humor it's hard to beat Harvey, but when it comes to searing wit and subtle satire, you can't do much better than Oscar Wilde—and The Importance of Being Earnest is one of his very finest.

So it's no surprise Novato Theater Company plucked this chestnut for its first live performance post-pandemic. But while there is much to love about the play—the witticisms come at you with such regularity that it's hard to take one in before the next bon mot comes flying at you—an unbalanced cast and flaccid direction combine to make this production a bit of a yawner. (A fellow audience member quipped to me during one of the two intermissions that they passed some of the time counting the heads nodding off into slumber.)

If you've never seen The Importance of Being Earnest, it probably means you never went to high school, because it must be a criteria for accreditation given that it's been performed by virtually every drama program since the Earth was cooling. The plot, while filled with twists, is relatively simple: Algernon (Thomas Peterson), a gentleman of leisure, is paid a visit by his friend Ernest (Lorenzo Alviso), who is actually named Jack, Ernest being the name he has given to an imaginary brother, using the brother's wayfaring ways as an excuse to leave his estate in Shropshire to escape to London on a regular basis. Jack loves Gwendolen (Julianne Bretan), Algy's cousin, who has been determined since girlhood to marry a man named Ernest. But Lady Bracknell (an appropriately imperious Kim Bromley), Gwendolen's mother and Algy's Aunt Agatha, is not amused. Ultimately, this cadre of the leisure class decamp to Jack/Ernest's estate, where all will be resolved, but not after three acts full of lies, crises of identity, and social satire.

Let's begin with the positives. First, it's Wilde. One of the greatest wits of all time, Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest played with truth and lies, skewered society (while remaining steadfastly inside it), and created a set of characters, none particularly likeable—yet somehow charming and worthy of our attention. Second, there are some terrific performances among a cast that is sadly unbalanced.

Interestingly, it's the actors playing secondary characters who do the best work with their smaller roles. As Cecily, Jack/Ernest's youthful ward, Gwendolyn Phair is undeniably adorable, with a birdcall of a voice, eyes that flicker demurely, and a face that morphs from giddiness to confusion in a most appealing way. Kim Bromley's Lady Bracknell carries herself with a brilliant haughtiness that commands the stage. Julianne Bretan does a marvelous job as the spoiled, fussy, madly in love Gwendolen. Her character changes her mind faster than the most spineless of flip-flopping politicians. It's as if her character's opinions are made of slivers of ice coated with lube: impossible to hold for long and incredibly short-lived. In the very small roles of the two butlers, Lane and Merriman, Tim Clover never steals a scene, but that doesn't mean his timing and line readings aren't spot on. His characters exhibit a carefully concealed disdain for their "betters" that is glorious to watch.

It's when we come to the two leads that things go wrong. The performances of Peterson as Algernon and, to a lesser degree, Alviso as Jack/Ernest are overly mannered and out of tune with their scene partners. While the rest of the cast seem to inhabit their characters from the inside out, Peterson and Alviso wear theirs like dime store costumes with visible seams. Although each has his moments (Peterson does do some lovely things with his hands from time to time), neither fully capture the rhythms of Wilde's brilliant text. Peterson's rat-a-tat delivery regularly undercuts the humor that makes The Importance of Being Earnest such a classic. For that matter, director Mark Clark seems to be concerned the play would run too long, and rushes the proceedings. There are several instances where a single beat or two between a set-up and a punch line (as in "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.") would have elicited a far bigger laugh.

While some of the costuming is delightful (Clark has set the action in the go-go, mod '60s) and has a Carnaby Street flair, the set is clumsy and cheaply made.

Sad to say, despite some wonderful performances, if you've seen The Importance of Being Earnest before, this production will show you nothing new. If you haven't, keep an eye out at your local high school—they'll be putting this classic on the boards soon enough.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs through November 21, 2021, at Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato CA. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $27 general, $22 for members and subscribers, and $12 for those under 18. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 415-883-4498.