A CLASSIC COMEDY OF MANNERS
Gulfshore Playhouse brings Oscar Wilde’s ‘Earnest’ to life
Hanley Smith as Cecily, left, and Claire Brownell as Gwendolyn. PERUSING THE CAST LIST FOR GULFSHORE PLAYhouse’s latest offering, the classic Oscar Wilde comedy of manners, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” everything looks to be in order:
William Connell as John Worthing, the respectable young man who leads a double life.
A.J. Shively as Algernon Moncrieff, the witty and charming bachelor.
Claire Brownell as Gwendolyn, Algernon’s beautiful cousin who is in love with Mr. Worthing.
Hanley Smith as Cecily Cardew, Worthing’s delightful ward who is in love with … (well, you’ll just have to see the show —no spoilers).
Kate Young as Ms. Prism, Cecily’s governess who harbors romantic feelings for the village rector.
Tony Triano as Reverend Chasuble, the village rector.
Nick Ullett as Lady Bracknell, Algernon’s snobbish aunt and Gwendolyn’s cunning mother.
A.J. Shively and William Connell in Gulfshore Playhouse’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” playing Feb. 15 through March 3.
COURTESY PHOTO Cody Nickell as both Lane and Merriman, a butler and a manservant, respectively.
Wait, let’s rewind. NICK Ullett as Lady Bracknell?
“He’s perfect for the role,” says Producing Artistic Director Kristen Coury, who is also directing the show. “Also, with our limited space and dressing room challenges, it was actually practical to have a man play Lady Bracknell in our production.”
Lady Bracknell is an iconic role. For those not familiar with the play, try to imagine an even wittier, more domineering “Downton Abbey” Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith). The role has been famously played by many men, most recently on Broadway by legendary Shakespearean actor Brian Bedford. Locally, in a production directed by Florida Repertory Theatre’s Robert Cacioppo, Lady Bracknell was played by the late Neils Miller.
For Mr. Ullett, this is the first time he has played a woman on stage, and he promises he won’t be camping it up.
“It’s interesting,” he says in his clipped British accent. “I haven’t thought about how to play a woman, I’ve thought more about how to play a really wonderful character.”
Lady Bracknell is on a mission. She wants to see her daughter Gwendolyn married. But Gwendolyn is strongwilled — “Like mother, like daughter,” Mr. Ullett says. The danger for actors playing the role, he adds, is to make it too comedic.
“Lady Bracknell really has the most terrific, witty lines, one after another. It’s important to keep the portrayal honest and real and not go after each punch line.”
Although Mr. Ullett came to the United States from Britain in 1964 as half of a comedy team, he has not been pigeonholed as a comedian in his subsequent years on stage and in film and television. His experience ranges from eight appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to numerous Broadway musicals and even a stint as an advertising executive on Madison Avenue in the ‘70s.
His wife is Jenny O’ Hara, best known for her recurring role as Janet Heffernan on the long-running sitcom “King of Queens.” The couple has been married for 27 years and is based out of Los Angeles.
His role as Lady Bracknell for Gulfshore Playhouse brought Mr. Ullett to Naples for the first time, and he says he’s enjoying the community, the weather and, especially, rehearsals.
“This young cast is extraordinary,” he says. “You can always expect older actors to eat up classic plays like this, but all of them are having a wonderful time.”
One Wilde time
The tagline for “The Importance of Being Earnest” is “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.”
New York actor A.J. Shively, who plays Algernon and has mostly done musical theatre (“La Cage Aux Folles,” “Brigadoon”), says being in an Oscar Wilde play “is a really fun stretch.” This is also Mr. Shively’s debut with Gulfshore Playhouse, as it is for fellow New Yorker William Connell.
“We’re having a great time,” Mr. Connell says. “But it’s also an education.” Because the play is set in England in the late 1800s, the costumes “change the way you move, stand and sit,” he explains. “You even have to think about how to scratch your nose on stage if it itches. I mean, a proper English gentleman doesn’t scratch his nose as casually as we would.”
Ms. Coury saw the Broadway version of “Earnest” in 2011 and knew she wanted to do it here with Gulfshore Playhouse.
“We hadn’t done Wilde before, and we were looking for a good classic piece of theatre. Yes, it’s lovely and it’s frilly, but it has a ton of social commentary that will resonate with today’s audiences,” she says.
Opening night for the Gulfshore Playhouse production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is Feb. 15, the 118th anniversary of the original London premiere.
“It’s truly one of the funniest plays in the English language,” Ms. Coury says. “And we have one of the most talented casts ever to pull it off.” ¦
“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde
>> When: Feb. 15-March 3 (preview performance Feb. 14)
>> Where: The Norris Center
>> Tickets: $33-45 ($25 for preview)
>> Info: 261-7529 or www.gulfshoreplayhouse.org