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The Waterloo Bridge Theatre Company’s double bill, "The Bear" and "The Importance of Being Earnest," unites two commanding and very different literary figures - Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov.

Journalist, poet, playwright, novelist and author of children’s fables, the Anglo-Irish Wilde (1854-1900) was perhaps best known for his charm, wit and flamboyant dress. At his height, Wilde was a prominent proponent of an aesthetic movement that advocated "art for art’s sake."

None of this helped him much when his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas led to his imprisonment for homosexual behavior, effectively putting an end to his career at the age of 41. A broken man, he died five years later.

Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was actually a physician in a poor area outside Moscow. He had already written hundreds of short stories when at the age of 28 he began to be taken seriously as a writer. Chekhov’s work, often very funny, is noteworthy for its realistic portrayal of ordinary human beings caught in situations they find unmanageable.

Like Wilde, Chekhov died young, succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 44.

Despite their differences, what is strikingly obvious about these two literary giants is that they were contemporaries. Living in the latter half of the 19th century, both witnessed tremendous upheavals in their respective countries: England was establishing her empire and Russia was coming out of the feudal system of the Middle Ages. To a large extent, these changes are reflected in the work of both.

"The Bear," directed by Michael Hagins, is a one-act dealing with the attempts of the boorish (or bear-ish) Grigory Stipanovich Smirnov (David Rigg), a landowner who has none of the graces that come with such a position, to recover a debt from the widow Yeliena Ivanova Popova (Sharon Cacciabuado). Smirnov never gets his money, but he does get the girl. And it is Chekhov’s subtle play of emotions and shift of mood as well as the wonderful acting of Cacciabuado and Rigg that make this rendering so enjoyable and funny.

The company has used an abridged version of "The Importance of Being Earnest," which may be a disappointment for those who are familiar with the play and miss a few of Wilde’s sparkling epigrams. But for those who can deal with the omissions, or who believe that less is more, this production trips along as lightly and gracefully as a deer running through the woods.

Wilde’s most popular play, "Earnest" is a comedy of manners and a satire on the British nobility and clergy. This production is directed by J. Brandon Hill.

Jack Worthing (Jason Esquerra), a foundling who was discovered in a handbag at Victoria Station, has a ward named Cecily Cardew (Kimberly Rae Miller). In order to justify his frequent merrymaking trips to London, he fabricates a rascally younger brother named Earnest who constantly needs his older brother to get him out of trouble.

As the play opens, Worthing, as Earnest, is seeking the hand of Gwendolen Fairfax (Katherine Sise) daughter of Lady Bracknell (Cate Brewer), an upper-class snob who objects to the match because of Worthing’s lack of appropriate connections.

Worthing has a friend named Algernon Moncrief (Will Pinchin) who learns of Worthing’s deception and decides to go to Worthing’s country estate and woo Cecily posing as the fictitious Earnest. Soon both Gwendolen and Cecily are in love with men whom they believe are named Earnest - a name which is, in fact, very important to them.

When Worthing and Moncrief learn of the ladies’ predilection for the name Earnest, they each ask Reverend Chasuble (Danny Jensen) to re-christen them, until a twist in the plot proves this unnecessary.

Pinchin and Esquerra parry magnificently but don’t do enough to distinguish their characters from each other. And Sise and Miller are true to form as the proper young ladies trying to get their way without popping out of their corsets.

While the affectations of all the characters may be a bit much for a contemporary audience, they are quite consistent with Wilde’s elegant witticisms. Lines like, "You’ve buried yourself alive, but you haven’t forgotten to powder your face," "Do you smoke? Every man should have an occupation," and, "In matters of great importance, style, not sincerity, is the thing," deserve the accompaniment of a churlish twist of the lips, a fluttery flight of the hand or the surreptitious wink of the eye.

The Waterloo Bridge company has yet to attract the audiences to fill their theater and their coffers. This means bare-bones sets and lighting. (They seem to do better with costumes.) Nevertheless "The Bear" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" make for an delightful evening of light, no-frills laughter.


The Waterloo Bridge Theatre Company’s productions of "The Bear" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" play through March 14, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $10 students. The Waterloo Bridge Playhouse is located at 475 Third Ave. at 10th Street in Gowanus. For reservations, call (212) 502-0796 or visit

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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