The Importance of Being Earnest Is Oscar Wilde at His Best

Categories: Stage

earnest1.jpg
Photo by Pim Lin
Pamela Vogel as Lady Bracknell, John Johnston as Jack, and Lindsay Ehrhardt as Gwendolen
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.

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