Review: Gulfshore Playhouse discovers magical 'Importance of Being Earnest'

Claire Brownell and William Connell in Gulfshore Playhouse's production of 'The Importance of Being Earnest,' which will run through March 3.

Pedro Zepeda / Gulfshore Playhouse

Claire Brownell and William Connell in Gulfshore Playhouse's production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," which will run through March 3.

Video from YouTube
A.J. Shively and William Connell in Gulfshore Playhouse's production of 'The Importance of Being Earnest,' which will run through March 3.

Gulfshore Playhouse

A.J. Shively and William Connell in Gulfshore Playhouse's production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," which will run through March 3.

Hanley Smith and A.J. Shively in Gulfshore Playhouse's production of 'The Importance of Being Earnest,' which will run through March 3.

Pedro Zepeda / Gulfshore Playhouse

Hanley Smith and A.J. Shively in Gulfshore Playhouse's production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," which will run through March 3.

What: Oscar Wilde's Victorian high farce about manners, mistaken identities and tea

When: 8 p.m. through Saturday, March e. Additional 3 p.m. matinée showings on Feb. 16 & 17; Feb. 20 and March 2 & 3.

Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples

Cost: $33-$45, $15 for students

Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org

On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog

Gulfshore Playhouse at Norris Community Center

755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples, FL

— Gulfshore Playhouse has produced good shows, great shows and shows I wasn't quite a fan of.

Now, with "The Importance of Being Earnest," Kristen Coury finds herself in a different place entirely. "Earnest" is amazing.

I absolutely don't care if you hate Oscar Wilde. This will be the best two and a half hours of your life. Cucumber sandwiches not included. I don't like cucumber sandwiches anyway.

"Earnest," Wilde's scathing satire of Victorian manners and customs, premiered on Valentine's Day 118 years ago. The play tosses multiple cases of mixed-up identities, mistaken engagements, quirky servants, a towering dowager and more into elegant drawing rooms and genteel gardens. Manners rule above all else; when manners fail, the nobility pulls out a lorgnettte and calls for tea.

That's what the British do. They drink tea. One of the play's greatest lines - and I'm so happy to report that Claire Brownell does it justice - comes in Act Two. Her Gwendolen Fairfax has just surprised Hanley Smith's Cecily Cardew in the garden. Mistaken identities lead the pair to believe they're engaged to the same man. After a polite but unpolite squabble, Cecily rings for tea.

Brownell, in one of Jennifer Bronsted's gorgeous gowns with a river of flowers cascading down the front, stands at stage right. She rolls her eyes, debating whether to refuse the hospitality. Audiences can clearly see how annoyed her character is in this moment, how much she wants to be anywhere but here.

Then, she delivers the line: "Detestable girl! But I require tea!" With that, she sweeps across the stage, sits primly in a lacquered white iron patio chair, smiles cheerily and very much with fake charm at Cecily and asks for tea.

Smith smiles brightly right back across the table. And then dumps a whole pot of sugar into the cup.

Neapolitans, get yourself to the Norris Center. Savor this exquisite masterpiece.

"Earnest" offers enterprising directors and talented casts acres of room to experiment. Coury doesn't just experiment - she creates, applying the lessons learned during "Tartuffe," "A View from the Bridge" and "Blithe Spirit."

She flings her casting net among the best New York has to offer - and looks beyond the expected for the nuances an actor can deliver. Brownell, a magnificent talent, returns from "A Streetcar Named Desire." Cody Nickell, now a staff member, applies his ferociously sharp wit to the often-overlooked pair of servants' roles. Almost every single detail of this production falls into place with marvelous precision.

Wilde meant for the show to work on multiple levels. There's a romantic comedy, a withering commentary on manners and then the question of subtext. The characters constantly talk in circles. Very little of importance actually happens in "Earnest; Wilde specifically wanted the play to be about trivialities.

Gulfshore Playhouse audiences get all three - and in spades. Watching the tangled mess play out on stage, as actors whip out spectacles, swan around with lavish hats and fondle walking sticks proves a pure delight. Audiences know this is all likely to end in a glorious tangle - even if the characters don't - and that's what makes it so much fun.

The genius - and the pleasure - comes from watching and noticing the tiniest details. These are the moments that Kristen Coury and her cast of professional actors spent time rehearsing, refining, working and reworking. A.J. Shively peeking into a mirrored jewelry box to spy on Earnest and Gwendolen. William Connell kneeling to propose, then springing to his feet again in haste. Claire Brownell entering the garden and freezing in a glamour shot pose, only to find no one of consequence there to admire her. These details lift the play from merely superb to divinely sublime.

Shively (Algernon Moncrief) and Connell (John Worthing) deliver a sterling duo of lead performances. Their prickly, can't quite identify it chemistry falls into place once the play's thicket of secrets unwinds. Kudos to Coury, Shively and Connell for achieving that subtle bit of theatre cleverness.

Remember Shively. Quicksilver magic on stage, he makes the thoroughly ridiculous Algernon seem both devilishly charming and imitably respectable. He and Coury pulled the character back from being a dandy; here, Algernon lands somewhere in the realm of hyperactive insouciance (if such a thing exists).

The details. Every time Shively's Algernon takes a seat, he sweeps the tails of his coat out from under him with flair and a smirk at the audience to match. Watch Algernon, constantly, as he will eat anything - even if didn't start on his plate.

When she cast Shively and William Connell, Coury saw the opportunity for an interesting pairing.

Connell's John Worthing sweeps onstage in an elegant gray suit. Hat off, there's a patrician bearing that looks straight out of a Ralph Lauren advertisement. Connell plays the icy, serious foil to Shively's jokester to perfection. Watch for the fumbling attempts to propose to Gwendolen and a confrontation (or two) with the inimitable Lady Bracknell.

What Connell does so well is switch from serious to silly and back again. The stern face, combed back hair and high collar just don't match a man grabbing in exasperation at a cigarette case. Or making incredibly funny faces in horror at realizing his beloved does indeed love him.

Brownell goes places with Gwendolen. Indescribable places. Her Gwendolen has layers upon layers to make the "Downton Abbey" girls seem simple. Or does she? Will she reject John solely on the basis of his name? You honestly don't know, because the actress keeps you guessing between vapid and vamp for most of the night.

Brownell, looking regal in a pair of Bronsted's smoky pidgeon-grey creations, elevates the concept of "snobby Victorian" from caricature to creation. Her Gwendolen communicates every meaning of the loaded sentences she delivers, always with a special twist. One of the most unexpected laughs comes from hearing (and watching) her repeatedly half-speak, half-snarl the name "Jack" every time she considers marrying anyone not named Earnest.

Hanley Smith brings winsome charm to Cecily. A girlish rosy pink dress, blonde curls and an innocent smile add to the character's guileless allure. She and Brownell lift the garden-set tea scene to absolute magnificent heights. Watching the two women, by now bitter enemies, square off over that most civilized of occupations brings amusements to no end.

In "Earnest," the role of Lady Bracknell can be played by an actor of either gender. Nick Ullett offers a harrumphing growl with a discernible whiff of "Dowager Countess" in it. That's not necessarily a bad thing either.

Ullett has a wonderful way of rising at the end of Lady Bracknell's questions, making her dreaded interrogations even more dreaded. Imagine being grilled by a KGB agent wearing an enormous gown the size of Rhode Island (with sleeves clear out to Connecticut), a jeweled purse from which she pulls a notebook the size of a book of stamps and a hat with a garden and several birds? And she wants to know if you smoke?

I quite like most of what Ullett does with the role, especially the growling. I just wish the performance had slightly more of an edge all the way around, from delivery to costumes. If Coury was trying to steer clear of caricature, Lady Bracknell feels just a shade too subtle. With a handful of already bold personalities on stage, why hold back one of Wilde's greatest creations?

Nickell nearly steals his all-too-brief scenes as all-too-wise butler Lane. Watch, if you can, Lane's face as he talks to Algernon. Nickell's snarky butler knows what sort of troubles his master gets up to. Tony Triano and Kate Smith offer a silly respite as besotted couple Rev. Chausable and Miss Prism, although I wish both had enunciated just a little more sharply.

If the show as a whole has a fault, there is the sense that Coury and her cast haven't quite hit all the gears they are capable off. Some of the scenes, especially in the rambunctious third act, feel almost chaotic rather than choreographed; there's definitely room for the humor to grow in places.

Robert F. Wolin takes his brief to create a drawing room set that blends period with modern - and that can transform into a garden - to wonderful heights. I want that wallpaper - a sumptuous crimson, with curls and swirls. Heavy gold frames cradle generic Victorian paintings ashamed of themselves. Warm tile gleams from a fireplace.

Latticework, either a dusky gold or stained, frames the room. Another frames the stage, creating a proscenium arch. The lattice transforms into a pleasant arbor, with dusky pink flowers, a screened porch and peephole garden gate. I dislike the outdoors, so most of you will want that garden.

Bronsted doesn't break the bank on ultra-lavish period costumes; I'd love to see what Gulfshore Playhouse could do with an unlimited budget. Look for sophisticated elegance in small places, like pocket chains, Lady Bracknell's perfectly coordinated jeweled handbags or Connell's elegant ebony and silver walking stick. Shively scores a crimson waistcoat in Act One and an entirely too natty blue and white striped suit for the second half. He is the hippest of hipster Victorian.

Gardens. Cucumber sandwiches. A nice pot of tea. Even a rose for the gentleman's buttonhole. Lovely girls in beautiful gowns. Adorable boys in gorgeous suits. Funny ladies. Funny guys. You've never seen theater like this before. Discover "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Detestable barista. But I require coffee. Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

© 2013 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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