The Importance of Being Earnest is Just About perfect
Oscar Wilde's 1895 delicious comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, is verifiably one of theater's masterpieces. A perfect play, it works like gangbusters on the stage. Wilde's mad boys from Mayfair, London are magnificently loopy and exotic — I mean, really, who still eats cucumber sandwiches?
In this world, every character poses as something he's not. Blame it on Wilde's French predecessors, Victorian playwrights Scribe and Sardou, who liked nothing better than a weepy, "well-made" melodrama in which society matrons' forbidden secret pasts rise up to haunt their presents. Forever naughty, Wilde kicks the earnest French right in their over-stuffed posteriors and sends them comically flying. A recent audience had a boisterous reaction to A.D. Players' superlative rendition — you won't find laughter like this in any contemporary comedy except maybe something from Neil Simon. But with Wilde you get to use your brain.
The perfect outsider in Victorian society — married, but gay as the queen of May, which would be his undoing less than four months after Earnest's premiere when he was jailed for "gross indecency" — Wilde used his prodigious wit to skewer the very society that enshrined him as a media darling. The pretentiousness, pompousness, snobbery and hypocrisy of the upper crust, as well as the lower classes' equal condescension of their own, was pungent fodder for his sublime comedies, and his plays were the talk of the town. What set Wilde apart was his sparkling transparency in exposing the artificial world he inhabited. While relishing the role of the dandy and playing it to perfection, he was the only one who told it like it was.
The play starts in the posh Mayfair district, where old friends Algernon and Ernest confront each other over the double life each seems to be living. Faced with an incriminating inscription in his cigarette case, Ernest confesses that he is "Ernest" in town and "Jack" in the country, where he leads a bucolic life as the guardian of pretty 18-year-old Cecily. Ernest's name is really Jack, but when he wishes to escape the country, he pretends his brother Ernest in London needs his help, and off he goes to lead a wild city life for a few days. Algernon calls this deceitful but useful practice "Bunburying," after the fictitious invalid friend he himself invented to avoid unpleasant social duties.
Jack loves Gwendolen, daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell — one of theater's great character parts — and has come to London to propose. Unfortunately, Jack's an orphan; his parents lost him in Victoria Station when he was a baby, where he was found in a suitcase. The grande dame, in comic consternation, will not condone any "alliance...with a parcel." In immortal Wilde fashion, she spouts, "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."
Algernon complicates matters when he visits Jack's country house, in the guise of Jack's bad brother Ernest, and instantly falls in love with Cecily. Epigrams and bon mots are devilishly lobbed with the accuracy and speed of a Wimbledon match, as everyone has something to conceal. No one, whether country reverend or prim governess, whether polite society or downstairs help, is who he seems, which is Wilde's thesis. But it's often the most frivolous who are the most serious. The myth of married bliss gets punctured repeatedly, and the theme of "Bunburying" turns downright psychological when read as Wilde's gay plea. What he reveals throughout Earnest is a case study in gender politics.
Directed with panache by Christy Watkins, Wilde's wondrous comedy is wrapped in a stylish cocoon of exceptional costuming (Donna Schmidt), imaginative setting (Stormy Mitchell) and velvety lighting (Angela Washenfelder) that suits Wilde to a T. As Gwendolyn might say with a sexy shudder, it produces "vibrations." But even better is the flawless cast, who are so in tune with Wilde they really do produce vibrations. Kevin Dean and Jeffrey McMorrough, as sparring fops Jack and Algernon, seem to have walked straight out of a Bloomsbury drawing room; Jennifer Dean's peerless Gwendolen is as obtuse, obdurate and delectable as can be; and Laurie Arriaga makes a feisty, flighty Cecily. There are no small roles in Wilde, but the supporting characters of Prism, Chasuble and the two butlers are comically etched by Patty Tuel Bailey, Ric Hodgin and Chip Simmons (who plays both butlers). Wilde gives stately Lady Bracknell the best lines, and Jeannette Clift George delivers them with all the cunning at her prodigious command. In those great mutton-sleeve ensembles, she exudes pontificating propriety, and makes us laugh out loud.
Art and artifice often promenade together. Thanks to the A.D. Players, Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is a walk through heaven.
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