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Classic Oscar Wilde Comedy Uneven At Berkshire Theatre Group

Claire Saunders and Rebecca Brooksher in BTG's The Importance of Being Earnest, 2021.
Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
Claire Saunders and Rebecca Brooksher in BTG's The Importance of Being Earnest, 2021.

When picking a theater season, especially when audiences are just beginning to return to inside venues, it’s a great choice to start with a classic comedy. Personally, I would insist that Oscar Wilde’s delicious comedy of manners, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” written in 1895, is one of the best comedies ever created.

Proof of the masterpiece’s durability is that the uneven production offered by Berkshire Theatre Group, inside its small Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Mass., gets a lot of laughs.

Those laughs, however, can be attributed to another rule of producing winning theater. When you have a legendary comic role, cast it with a gifted actor - like Harriet Harris.

Harris, who is perhaps best known for her role of Bebe, Kelsey Grammer’s conniving agent on the television series Frasier, is absolutely brilliant as Lady Bracknell. She is a one-woman laugh machine as she nurses humor with a dry delivery, a contemptible sneer or an unexpected outburst of pompous anger. Her moments on stage totally charge the play with Wilde’s comic view of the shallowness of the privileged class and the rules by which they live.

Her work is not only a joy, it rescues the production. Sadly, her ability to make unlikeable characters hilarious is not found in all of the other portrayals. When Harris is not on stage the production, under the stodgy direction of David Auburn, struggles.

The females in the cast do capture the comic vapidness of their characters very well. Claire Saunders is a charming Cecily, a woman who invents things to write in her diary and then uses the entry to prove they actually happened. She’s so good, you rarely question her logic.

Rebecca Brooksher is also very good at creating a person who invents her own logic. Based on her low-standards for love, the idea that she can only marry a man with the name of Earnest, might be as good a measurement as any.

The two are good at winning the audience over by creating characters who you can’t dislike, even though neither has a decent redeeming character trait. This quality doubles in their scenes when they are on stage alone together. You believe them when after 30 seconds they pledge themselves best friends, even though they and everyone else realizes they don’t even understand the concept of friendship.

However, a play dependent on the relationships between couples means you have to like both halves of the pairings. Neither Shawn Fagan as Algernon or Mitchell Winter as Jack find the charm of the two friends who are self-centered bachelors. Where the ladies glide effortlessly about the stage throwing off delightful quips, the men lumber and force their deliveries. Their wry, witty observations fall flat as they are clearly delivering lines rather than responding in character. The task in a Wilde comedy is to make disagreeable characters likeable. In this production it’s hard to believe that Algernon and Jack even like each other.

The cast is rounded out by veterans who add a sense of effortless professionalism to the production. Corinna May as Miss Prism makes the most of her reveal scene, Matt Sullivan is ideal creating two obsequious butlers, and David Adkins is fine in the throwaway role of Reverend Chasuble.

The costumes and set neither contribute nor detract from the production – which is appropriate for an effort that is neither good enough to be excited about, nor bad enough to dislike.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” continues at the Berkshire Theatre Group through July 10.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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