Review By Michael Tingley . . .
While flipping through the program before the show, I stumbled on two quotes that would capture the beauty of this adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. The first is from Producer/Director/Lighting Designer Maarten Cornelis, “What if members of the LGBTQ+ community never had to step out of the closet because we never had to be in it in the first place?” The other is from Michael Morley’s bio — who plays the bubbly and wonderfully petulant Cecil Cardew — “Michael Morley is thrilled to make Oscar Wilde even more gay!”
Wilde, as we all know, was born too early, we’re still catching up to him. Morley reminds us that in Earnest, Wilde held himself back to fit the milieu. Cornelis wants to imagine Wilde freed from his time and goes beyond adaptation; Earnestly LGBTQ+ more than places the Victorian Earnest into the present, more than swaps paisley for Pride parades, opium dens for trap-houses, Victoria for Biden, and buttonholed green carnations for mesh tops and death drops. Instead, Earnestly LGBTQ+ imagines if Wilde, equal parts wit and iconoclast, wrote today — what would it be like? It asks, and it answers, fabulously. Let me explain.
First, all the relationships in the play are LGBTQ+. It is not such a simple change as one might expect as the actors are acutely aware. By making Earnest “even more gay” the show reveals how “gay” it was in the first place. The actors have found that the dialogue subtly changes when the relationship is queered, and the players emphasize these nuances wonderfully. Next, no one walks in this show, there’s only strutting (the stomping tantrums of Cecil Cardew being the exception). Lady Bracknell, played by Denise Turkan — think Eastern European/Turkish Devil Wears Prada Meryl Streep — has become Cerberus-like, splitting lines with her two tremendous…assistants? Lovers? It’s unclear but it’s clearly hilarious. J. Mahal and Lyman Heung sass, bend, and seduce their way around the stage.
Playing Miss Prism is the confident and dynamic Lauren E. King. The love affair between Prism and Dr. Chasuble, played by Marie Angelo, is moving in a play that ridicules moving emotions — or any movement at all (“It is awfully hard work doing nothing”). The cynical, if not positively pessimistic, Lane finds multiple facets when played by Alison Wien. The added scene where Mahal and Heung change Lane into Merriman, Jack Worthing’s butler in the country, gives the butlers a sexuality often ignored in other productions.
But if we’re speaking of seduction — and really one can’t avoid it when talking about this show — Kenon Veno is unsurpassed. He plays by far the most dynamic, attractive, (adjectives don’t do the performance justice) Gwyn I have ever had the fortune to watch. The charged scenes between Veno and Preston Fox, as John Worthing, and Michael Morley, Cecil Cardew, should not be missed. Always a favorite of mine, the scene between Cardew and Gwyn in the country garden is the best rendition I’ve seen. Morley and Veno are exceptional together, sharing an energy and play only possible to achieve by actors who love their roles and fit them.
Finally, the outrageous best friends turned brothers, John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, played by Preston Fox and Clint Blakely, interrogate, rouse, and trick each other. In most productions, Jack Worthing is an uptight Victorian wrestling with his desires. The Jack in Earnestly LGBTQ+ has to be all that in lace shirts with bleached hair. Fox pulls it all off though, and still manages to be an exceptionally engaging partner for Blakely’s Algernon, a character famous for his desire to eat everything – including the play. Blakely plays this voracious part exceptionally well, delivering some of Wilde’s most memorable lines with grace and humor.
Earlier I mentioned Cornelis was Producer/Director/Lighting Designer, each of these roles is as important as the last in this show. The lighting is playful, neon, romantic. The actors have fun competing for their best light. Earnestly LGBTQ+ is a romp, a delight, and an imaginative liberation of Wilde’s most loved work.
Produced by Write Act Repertory and Gatehouse Entertainment at The Actors Temple, 339 West 47 St., NYC