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Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ now at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Dwyer

This classic comedy of manners is thought to be quite the modern tale by many as it examines the difference between metropolitan life and customs and rural life and customs. It examines the conflicts and confluences between status and money. It is about telling the truth and creating lies for one’s own benefits. It is about the difference of “gilding the lily” and “fake news.” And it is a hell of a good time.

Full disclosure: I am in the show. I was asked to play Lady Bracknell, a delicious role that is often these days played by a man in women’s clothes. It was such an honor to be asked that I said “yes to the dress.” I had trepidation due to how quickly it was going up ( a couple of weeks) and the daunting task of how many lines are to be learned in a play that is known for its run-on sentences and quick rhythms. But I was with a cast that is filled with Music Mountain Theater professionals. This cast is so strong and so very funny that I know the show will be extremely enjoyable for anyone who wants to see it in person, see it at the drive-in option or watch it as it streams online.

Due to my personal relationship to the show, I can’t make statements on the production, but I can do three things for the theatergoer to assure that they won’t be disappointed if they go: 1) I can tell you of the pedigree of actors that I have working with me, who I have seen in many shows before, 2) I can tell you about the play itself and what an incredible work it is, and 3) I can also give you an assurance of the safe environment that exists at Music Mountain for talent, crew and staff and how the audience is protected.

On the acting level, we have some of the best local actors, featuring Louis Palena as Algernon, Mark Whitman as Jack, Katie Rochon as Gwendolyn Fairfax, Jenny McNiven as Cecily Cardew, Mary Murdock as Miss Prism, Jonathan Wierzbicki as Dr. Chasuble and Patrick Lavery as Lane/Merriman. I have the honor of playing Lady Bracknell.  Many among the cast were also featured in one of the best shows I have seen in this area, Music Mountain’s production “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Lavery impressed previously in “Into the Woods.” Murdock in “The Laramie Project.”

Oscar Wilde is a difficult playwright for an actor. His sentences are sometimes 30 words or more in length. They are witty and require a certain timing, unlike many American plays of 10-word sentences and a five-word retort as a punchline. This observation was made by famed British director Adrian Noble who directed a notable production in London in 2015 with David Suchet as Lady Bracknell.

Those who are familiar with the PBS series “Downton Abbey” will know that at the turn of the century from 19th to 20th, in the age of Queen Victoria,” there was a great transition occurring. Status had previously been conferred on a person by their lineage. But as the world was creating more wealth from commerce, aristocracy was becoming less important and taking a backseat to the nouveaux riche.

The plot is that Jack is from the country and falls in love with an aristocrat Miss Gwendolyn Fairfax, daughter of Lord and Lady Bracknell. Algernon is an English gentleman and dandy, who is the nephew of Lady Bracknell and falls in love with sweet country girl, Cecily Cardew. What stands in the way of their love are custom and status. Society would not look kindly on the mixing of city and country, stylish and oafish, rich and poor. Lady Bracknell is the antagonist who represents these prejudices and stands in the way of the young lovers. The story reveals a lot about Victorian society and, also, speaks to today about prejudice, telling the truth and being, above all, earnest.

I was honored to be asked to playLady Bracknell, and though I did a reading in the spring at the Hopewell Theater of “The Diary of Anne Frank” directed by Stephen Stahl, I have not had to memorize lines or do a fully-staged play for over a decade. One of the great things about Music Mountain Theater is that the Brennan and Palena families, who are the heart and soul of the group, are so welcoming and inspiring to those who want and need to grow artistically. I hope I was able to get this old warhorse across the finish line. The role deserves it and so does this production, cast and crew.

As to the safety measures that are in place, they are impressive. They show the seriousness of this group in keeping their staff and volunteers safe and, even more importantly, their customers.

Air scrubbers have been installed in the HVAC system. They destroy over 99% of all surface and airborne contaminants faster, purifying surfaces and air, and safely removing allergy and asthma triggering contaminants. More information about the upgraded air system is available online. They also clean all door handles, bathrooms, light switches, seats, handrails and public areas after every performance. Temperatures are taken of every audience member by staff, all of whom have had their temp taken.

You can attend shows in three ways. You can physically attend the theater, but you or your group will be spaced away from others. The theater is operating at 25% capacity, maintaining New Jersey state law, selling only 50 tickets per show. You can also buy a ticket and see the show virtually. Or you can use the drive-in theater option and see an evening show performance in the parking lot.

In regards to the show, cast and crew, our initial rehearsals were conducted with Zoom, and our initial blocking was a choice of onstage or zoom. I chose onstage and we were all six feet apart and wearing masks. Anyone coming into the theater is given a temperature check. Hand sanitizer is everywhere. All of our props get sanitized. Our individual costumes can be sprayed with a sanitizer Febreeze mix. I took a covid test and came back negative the Monday before the show. I am taking one after the show to protect myself and cast mates. Our dressing tables are all six feet. from each other. We wore masks up until two days before we opened.

You should see this play and support this important non-profit. The play is a masterpiece and a classic. It is a good laugh but, amidst all of the banter, there is much to think about.

As a bit of historical information, it opened on Feb. 14, 1895. Four days later, Oscar Wilde started legal battles over how society did not accept who he loved. That his play chronicles the social barriers to love is more than ironic. As to the themes of the piece, perhaps one thing comes across from the piece: Truth is important and love above all. There is an importance to being earnest.

Tickets to “The Importance of Being Earnest” for Friday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 14-15 at 3 p.m. are available online.

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