The comedy begins awkwardly enough, as it has for the past 111 years. Are we really supposed to buy into this pretense about self-indulgent gentlemen who use one name in London and a different alias in the country? As the ever-cynical Algernon and his love-smitten crony Jack, Tim Grumich and Rob Gibbs not only are required to pose and posture through the exposition-heavy front half of Act One, but they have to do it in the round, a form of staging that Act Inc. holds dear, even when plays like this plead for a proscenium. In the opening scene, director Amy Arnott has saddled her two protagonists with capricious blocking, surely intended to ensure that viewers on all four sides of the stage can see and hear. What happens, alas, is that everyone ends up missing something.
But patience is rewarded when Jack's beloved Gwendolyn appears in the angelic form of Julie Venegoni. "I intend to develop in many directions," Venegoni promptly informs us, to which a grateful viewer can only utter "amen." Although Wilde's Gwendolyn is a simple-minded ingénue who falls in love with a man's name rather than with the man himself, Venegoni's Gwendolyn is both determined and assured. Years ago Venegoni learned the value of onstage stillness. She has the savvy to know that if she remains inert in a busy scene, the viewer's eye will return to her, even as in an art gallery filled with patrons the eye returns to a hanging Botticelli. By the end of Act One, it's a callous soul that doesn't succumb to this mirage in turquoise.
But wait! Act Two introduces us to little Cecily, Jack's naive ward. Colleen Backer has given many captivating performances over the years. But this week she would have us believe that she was born to be Wilde. When Algernon unexpectedly arrives at her country estate and pronounces that Cecily is "in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection," the encomium sounds like understatement. Backer delivers an absolutely perfect and gorgeously sustained portrayal. She is the ultimate innocent siren. Every lift of the hand, every tilt of the head, every flutter of the eyes, is calculated to seduce. If, in snaring Algernon, she also snares half the audience in her net, we can only hope that she'll throw us back into the sea when the play is over. Backer delivers even her simplest speeches as if she were a musical instrument. Imagine a cream-coated voice "speaking" the opening clarinet solo in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Here we hear that sliding clarinet all night long. When the two actresses take the stage together, first as enemies, then as allies, The Importance of Being Earnest becomes The Julie and Colleen Show. And what a romp it is.
Meanwhile, somewhere on the outer edges of the evening, Wilde's plot is playing out, and not always felicitously. As the imperious Lady Bracknell, Eleanor Mullin once again resorts to her trademark nineteenth-century vibrato. Is there any evidence to suggest that 100 years ago people actually raised their voices at the ends of names, as in "Mr. WorthING" and "GwendoLYN"?
Yet even the irritant of affectation can be assuaged by the presence of two such charming ingénues. By evening's end we no longer even object to Earnest's being performed in the round. Backer and Venegoni could play it on their heads and viewers would still leave the theater in thrall.