Theater Review: The British Invasion! Comes To RI Theater Scene

Sep 21, 2017

The Gamm Theatre is dashing through Oscar Wilde’s ever-popular comedy with a point, “The Importance of Being Earnest” while the Wilbury Group is tangling with Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker.”   Rhode Island Public Radio’s Bill Gale has seen them both.

Let’s start with “The Importance of Being Earnest” that ever-so stage-y, ever so hilarious, drama with a point. At the Gamm, director Fred Sullivan Jr. has gone all out with a production that never stops, never fails to launch every joke, every wise remark, every opportunity to set fire to Oscar Wilde’s “Trivial Comedy For Serious People.”

The result is a considerable effort that sometimes goes overboard but most of the time is a lovable, and likable, look at the author’s view of a Victorian England that he abhorred even as he found himself starkly right in the middle of.

This ever-enduring play, you’ll remember, delivers two guys, both enamored amid a most serious, most difficult time where being proper counted for just about everything- at least for the top classes, that is. The lads pursue women -- until the ladies catch them, and all is one wicked line after another.

Sullivan’s production adds some things – songs occasionally, bits that were cut from the original 1895 production. It all works on a stage brightened considerably with Patrick Lynch’s humorous, ever-workable setting and David T. Howard’s gorgeous costumes, on the men, as well as the women.

The cast is very fine, all with good English accents. Mark Dante Mancini and Jeff Church are the two lads to the hilt while Nora Eschenheimer and Alison Russo are the ever-chased (and chaste) women winners. Deb Martin is nothing but a hugely competent over-the-top Lady Bracknell.

So, despite some overboard attempts, this difficult to do classic has reached its goal – the production is both funny, and serious.

Richard Donelly in "The Caretaker" by Harold Pinter,
Credit James Lastowski / The Wilbury Theatre Group

That can not exactly be said about another British classic, Harold Pinter’s “The Caretaker” now receiving a strong production at the Wilbury Group.

In their new headquarters in the Olneyville section of Providence, this always thought-provoking company has once again taken on a tough piece of work and made something of it.

“The Caretaker” is a sometimes funny, sometimes totally mean-spirited look into the lives and losses of three guys. There’s Aston, a still young-ish man who is trying and only sometimes achieving a will to live without having his sorrowful past take over his life. He’s accompanied by his brother Mick, who’s a tough guy filled with his own problems.

Enter Davies, an old guy who’s just hanging on, trying desperately to make something out of oh-so-little.

From there, in a junk-filled apartment, the three get into it, battling often, caring for each other rarely and generally making a greater mess of the dump and their terrifying lives.

Pinter’s 1960 play asks far more questions than it answers. It looks at domination, and human connection, scrapes the cover off racial hatred and finally seems to ask “What about me?!” You are likely to leave the theater wondering just what it was all about. But that’s Pinter. He proposes the questions. It’s for you to make some answers.

Fortunately, director Steve Kidd has made the work as crisp as possible, his actors are all tight and knowledgeable. Two brothers, Joe Short and the Wilbury’s artistic director, Josh Short, play the brothers to the hilt with strong and subtle performances.

As the old man, Richard Donelly is wonderfully possessive. His Davies is hateful and sadly hopeless. Donelly makes him both needy and vicious in what may well be the performance of the year around here.

So that’s it for British theater for a while. If you think you’d like to see an American classic – well, Arthur Miller’s great opens next week at Trinity Rep.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Gamm Theatre through October 15th. The Caretaker is at the Wilbury Group through October 7th.

Bill Gale covers the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.