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The slender 18-year-old is sunning himself in the nude when the audience first spots him at Source Theatre. An East Coast valley boy summering at Rehoboth, he glitters from head to toe—not with perspiration, but with actual glitter.
Lying face down in the sand, his shaved head reflecting the midday glare, he ought to be studying, but he’s listening to music instead, kicking his feet girlishly to a disco beat.
“I don’t like German,” he tells his tutor. “I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson.”
Right. This kid couldn’t look plain if he dressed at Brooks Brothers and wore a bag over his head. He’s flamboyant to the marrow, very nearly a wood nymph come to life—delicate, effeminate, and unconflictedly gay. You’d call him a cross between a female impersonator and a whooping crane if that didn’t somehow miss the plaintive little girl lurking in his gaze. He could be the love child of Britney Spears and that “Just Jack” guy on Will & Grace, except that every once in a while, he exhibits a spine of steel.
If Nosferatu had a gay son…no, that’s wrong, too. He’s just what he is: a lovesick boy who pines for a guy named Ernest in Source Theatre’s earnestly all-male The Importance of Being Earnest. The other characters call him Cecil rather than Cecily, and as played by Christopher Marlowe Roche, he’s a flat-out riot.
He’s also, alas, the only person on stage all evening who remotely suggests that updating, regendering, and relocating Oscar Wilde’s comedy—about a pair of Victorian aristocrats who woo their ditsy beloveds while claiming to be named Ernest—could ever make sense.
The evening starts with Algernon (John Benoit) handcuffed to a bed he’s sharing with his butler (Christopher Janson), who wears a studded leather harness and nothing else. One of them—I forget which—pulls a cucumber from beneath ebony sheets as the talk turns to Lady Bracknell’s cucumber sandwiches. There’s also a dildo under there, though it doesn’t surface until Algernon’s various guests are present.
Now, already there’s a problem. Wilde is mocking prudery and aristocratic pretension in Earnest, and a number of lines in this first scene have to do with class distinctions. Putting master and servant in bed together makes a hash of those jokes. So does altering punch lines to make them sound current. When Algernon complains that eight bottles of his finest champagne have disappeared, and his butler replies “eight bottles and a six-pack,” rather than “eight bottles and a pint,” it’s hard to say what’s being gained. The update sounds vaguely more modern, but it no longer fits quite so well with the archness of the surrounding dialogue. Ditto later references to Janet Reno, Dupont Circle, and the Reform Party, all of which are more jarring than amusing.
Which is not to say that all such tampering is infelicitous. In most productions, when Algernon’s friend Jack (Dwight Tolar) wonders whether his beloved Gwendolyn (here rechristened Wendell and played snippily by Eric Sutton) will become like her mother, he’s setting up a joke about gender. “All women become like their mothers,” replies Algernon. “That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”
This production substitutes “gay men” for “women” and “straight men” for “men,” and arrives at a very different but equally sharp jest about sexual orientation. Wilde would doubtless have approved.
Whether he’d have thought, however, that Lady Bracknell (Steven Cupo) should bray, “Rise, sir, from that semirecumbent posture,” to a man who is in the process of mounting her nephew is another matter. There’s a coarseness to the physicality in Source’s production that seems squarely at odds with Earnest’s central conception. Yes, Wilde filled the play with all sorts of veiled homosexuality—bickering Algernon and Jack might as well be a married couple; Gwendolyn and Cecily seem far more perfect for each other than they do for the men they’ve set their sights on—but it’s the veiling that gives the situations their comic fizz. The more the characters use politeness to mask their desires, the more telling the play’s social commentary becomes, especially if you know that Wilde (who was married, had two children, and was the toast of Victorian society) was sentenced to prison for his homosexuality in the very year the play was first produced.
A staging can use the duality of society’s double standards or ignore it, but probably shouldn’t get rid of it altogether. It’s one thing to suggest that Algernon might have a yen for Jack, as director Richard Romagnoli did in his revelatory Olney Theatre production a couple of seasons ago, but yank The Importance of Being Earnest all the way out of the closet, and the play’s subtext simply disappears.
And that’s essentially what happens at Source. Co-directors Joe Banno and Jeff Keenan sacrifice all of Wilde’s class-conscious social comedy, his ridiculing of Victorian prudery, much of his delicacy of phrasing—and the play’s central reason for being—all to give audiences what in return? A few moments of nudity and some verrry broad playing from actors who mostly know better. Benoit oils his way around the stage, leering and sneering until his Algernon seems downright predatory. Cupo gives Lady Bracknell a thick Southern accent and way too much bluster, when what’s needed is a touch of Quentin Crisp. Ray Hagen turns an elderly country rector into a walking pederasty joke. And so on. Greg Mitchell’s unnecessarily complicated setting (the changeover from Kalorama town house to Rehoboth beach house requires a 20-minute intermission between Acts 1 and 2) and Adele Robey’s slightly overstated costumes also contribute to the sense that everyone’s working too hard.
Fortunately, the directors have allowed Roche’s valley boy free rein in the second act, and he pretty much runs away with the play for about 40 minutes: I don’t know if I’ve ever seen as effective a Cecily in a conventional production. Most actors play the role as a simpering bimbette, but Roche imbues it with an odd sort of gravity. His Cecil is every effeminate kid who ever got stuffed into his locker by bullies in high school—but somehow developed a sense of self anyway. When his primacy in his own little world at the beach is challenged and he’s forced to lock horns with Sutton’s prissy Wendell, the audience gets a glimpse of how delicacy of character conception and a more refined sense of camp might have made the rest of the production work better. It’s a brief glimpse, but it’s undeniably uproarious.
It’s probably just serendipity that the week also brings the opening of a Christopher Durang comedy set at the shore. Durang is, in some senses, a modern-day Wilde, brightly tweaking society’s most cherished habits of mind in willfully scandalous satires.
Betty’s Summer Vacation takes on tabloid television—a topic not really deserving of his attention, but good for a few yuks—by peopling a laugh-track-haunted beach house with a pleasant, comparatively sane woman named Betty (Holly Twyford) and several head cases who might as well be auditioning for Jerry Springer. The laugh track finds all of them hilarious; they find the laugh track disconcerting even as they learn to play to it.
Trudy (L.A. Powers) is an incest victim who can do a startling impression of a car alarm, Keith (Scot McKenzie) is a serial killer who won’t go anywhere without a shovel and a hatbox, Buck (J. Jason Huber) is a beer-swilling womanizer with the mind of a newt, and Mr. Vanislaw (Tom Kearney) is a trench-coated flasher. Also on hand is Trudy’s alcoholic mom (Sarah Marshall), who owns the beach house and who can come up with a cheery excuse for pretty much any calamity that befalls it, from the loose penis in her freezer to the traffic accident that eliminates an extra boarder that she’s invited.
J. R. Sullivan paces the evening like a Fox sitcom and gets some smart, energetic performances from his cast—Marshall’s giddy, one-woman spoof of Court TV is a real hoot, and Twyford’s feints and double-takes are priceless—but the director hasn’t made the evening seem like much more than an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. Its twists are a tad more scabrous, perhaps, but they don’t add up to much, probably because their target—the public’s obsession with TV’s airing of dirty laundry—is so broadly absurd on its own that Durang’s satirizing can’t help feeling like overkill. CP