The set-up: The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde's glittering comic bauble, his last play and masterpiece (1895), gleams brighter the older it gets. I challenge anyone to name a funnier play. Classical Theatre Company's production sets off sparks of its own, but doesn't quite approach the Tiffany setting this unique jewel so richly deserves. The execution: Wilde subtitled his delightful comedy "a trivial play for serious people," and this eminent Victorian did not disappoint. G.B. Shaw, reviewing the premiere, enviously called it "froth without pith." It is all that, and more. Written as if with a needle, Earnest skewers the posh upper classes with a dismissive wave of the hand. The implicit irony is thick, but it's handled like master chief Escoffier whipping up the silkiest of cream. Wilde beats his 19th century audience about the head with the lightest and funniest velvet gloves. No comedy before or since has been so trivial, yet so chock full of meaning. Artifice, just as Wilde himself so desperately desired to live it to its fullest, is raised to high art.
No one is what he seems in Earnest. Everyone has a secret life or is the ultimate hypocrite and might as well be leading a double life, just like the stereotypical characters in the Victorian drawing room "comedy of manners" Wilde cunningly mocked.
Jack (John Johnston, artistic director of CTC), who lives in the country with his young and beautiful ward Cecily (Emily Neves) and her tutor Miss Prism (Julia Taber), pretends to be "Earnest" when he visits the city. His London best friend Algernon (Matthew Keenan, wittily made-up to resemble the playwright), has a passion for cucumber sandwiches and takes nothing serious except for trivial matters.
Algy has invented a sick country friend "Bunbury" so he can escape the city and not have to endure dinner parties where wives actually flirt across the table with their own husbands. Jack's in love with Gwendolyn (Lindsay Ehrhardt), the daughter of battleaxe Lady Bracknell (Pamela Vogel), and has come expressly to London to propose. Algernon, intrigued by news of his friend's comely country ward, sets off to win her hand.
There's a supercilious butler (Bradley Winkler) and Miss Prism's reticent paramour the Rev. Chasuble (Ted Doolittle) to cause further problems. Complications ensue with impeccable timing and non-stop dialogue so witty it's been quoted in drama anthologies ever since its London premiere on St. Valentine's Day. This story continues on the next page.
A century before "Seinfeld," Wilde's comedy is truly a play about nothing. Yet by its very nature and Wilde's sublimely transforming genius, it means everything. In sparkling transparency the play trounces matrimony, religion, society, education, the unfortunate poor, Australia, the French! Earnest exposes late 19th century England with a merciless, ridiculous gimlet eye.
Wilde, an outsider more than he ever realized, performs the dissection with meticulous bravura. Nothing is out of place, characters are evenly matched, situations mirror each other, and everything is utterly false. Under the subterfuge of silliness, the seriousness resounds. Epigrams, bon mots, and witticisms explode from every other line of dialogue. It's like a tennis match between Tom Stoppard and Tom Stoppard. It must go "like a gun shot," wisely advised Wilde during rehearsals. No pauses. For maximum comic effect, the patented dialogue must be said as if everybody speaks in aphorisms, even the butler. The world Wilde creates is like none other, a wonderful exotic playland, but it's very much like our own - that's his genius. There's nothing funnier on stage than Wilde played with serious intent.
CTC's Earnest is well oiled and lovely to look at, thanks to Ryan McGettigan's witty cut-out backgrounds and Claremarie Verheyen's sumptuous costumes. Johnston and Keenan admirably convey Jack and Algy's sparring admiration for each other; Ehrhardt is the very picture of smart, cosmopolitan girl; and Neves turns country mouse Cecily into a clever foil for the spoiled city folk.
But it's Lady Bracknell we await anxiously - one of the most indelible characters ever put on stage. Like some royal barge, she bursts into Wilde's play with sails unfurled, going full speed, and everybody better get out of her way. She drips hauteur and takes no prisoners, pontificating on any subject broached. The ultimate grande dame, she rules in a man's world. She has an answer for anyone, right or wrong. She is arrogant and abysmally opinionated, but her thinking is so riotous - and her righteousness so funny - that she becomes endearing in her obtuseness. Without her, the play would be unthinkable. With her, the play soars.
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But one quality she does not possess is meanness. Vogel, one of Houston's most accomplished and intelligent actors, arrives with edges so sharp she almost shreds the page. Unrelenting, she barks her commands and pronouncements, and we half expect her to self-combust, she's so inwardly seething and hostile. There's tremendous humor to be mined in one so self-important, but Vogel - perhaps swayed under Thomas Pryor's direction, I can't be sure - plays her very hard, way too hard. All the play's airiness goes right out that Mayfair townhouse. And it never quite comes back, even when the subsequent "garden scene" is so exquisitely textured, as Gwendolyn and Cecily square off for their men during their "civil" tea party. When Lady Bracknell leaves the room, Jack describes her as a "gorgon," but Lady Bracknell comes from the Thames embankment, not the River Styx. She's no Fury, but should prompt a comic one from the audience. That Vogel does not - we cringe, not draw closer - keeps this Earnest on the far side of the empyrean.
The verdict: A sublime creation, The Importance of Being Earnest had the misfortune of opening - and being an immediate smash hit - one month before Wilde was arrested for "gross indecency," after unsuccessfully suing the Marquess of Queensberry, father of Wilde's former lover Alfred Lord Douglas. Queensberry had insulted Wilde at his club with a calling card that read "posing somdomite." The effrontery - and appalling misspelling - infuriated Wilde, but he was surprisingly unprepared for the vicious onslaught against him. Although his name was removed from the playbills and posters of Earnest and An Ideal Husband, another of his hits running concurrently, the public clamor soon closed down both plays. No Wilde would be seen in London until years after his death.
Any chance now to see Wilde is cause for celebration. CTC's Earnest isn't perfect, but even a somewhat earnest Earnest is better than no Wilde at all.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues through April 27 at The Barn, 2201 Preston Street. Purchase tickets online at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 713-963-9665. $10-$20.