'Earnest': Wilde at His Best, Delicious Word Play
On so many levels, there’s just no other word for it: the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Oscar Wilde’s most popular play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” is delicious.
It sounds delicious. It looks delicious. Sometimes, you swear you think you’re sniffing flowers from a Victorian English garden, and that’s delicious, too.
This is a production for theatergoers who remember the importance of being Oscar Wilde and why we still pay attention to his writing, works and life. It’s Wilde at his most accessible.
Watching this production—with Keith Baxter, who knows his way around Wildean manners and manors—you get an odd, conflicting set of feelings. It’s a production that seems almost exotically removed from the way we live today, while at the same time it feels familiar as songs you danced to when you were young.
Sometimes, listening and watching the characters at home in their perfectly dressed and outfitted comfort zone of Victorian sunset, is almost like watching an authentic resurrection of an ancient civilization—sort of like the Mayans or Aztecs, minus the human sacrifice. At other times, the Wilde epigrams flow like a rippling stream of smart, wise daggers and darts aimed at the cash-anemic, land-and-title wealthy aristocrats, so consumed by the outward flash of manners, dress codes, pedigree and ritual. They’re like a crescendo of bon mots of vanity .
Many of the epigrams act as dialogue: “work is the curse of the drinking class” and “we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality” are instantly familiar when spoken, and pertinent today.
We’re in good hands here with the direction by Baxter, who has directed dazzling productions of Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” and “Lady Windemere’s Fan.” He has staged it in such a way—with the great help of costume designer Robert Perdziola and set designer Simon Higlett—that it feels like a fine-tuned three-act epic, even though it has two sets and a cast of only 11 actors.
But it has words, complete-sentence conversations and battles, spoken in ways that feel like another form of English entirely—and that would cover British English and American English. Surely not even in England do aristocrats speak quite in such a mannered, musical way in which the vowels wage a successful war on consonants and with each other, the o’s swamping the a’s in every skirmish, elongating like Plastic Man.
The story—the kind of story that allowed Wilde to be the bad boy of English high society-is the gilded stuff of farce where closet and bedroom doors are forever slamming, except that there are no closets and bedrooms. There is only a drawing room in London and a rose-rich garden in the countryside. So, instead of slamming doors, you have almost magical and quite unexpected appearances of characters causing havoc and silent screams.
We have two high-minded, extremely well-dressed friends, John or Jack Worthing and the impeccably named Algernon Moncrieff. Algernon is the scion of an aristocratic family, dominated by Lady Bracknell, one of Wilde’s greatest creations, played here with magnificent, steely, nose-up determination by Sian Phillips. Worthing, who lives in the country where he is the guardian of the fetching Cecily Cardew, passes himself off as a non-existent brother named Earnest (thus, the importance of). He can’t drop his disguise because the object of his affections, Gwendolen Fairfax, loves the sound of the name, much more than she might love, say John or Jack. She is also Lady Bracknell’s daughter, a hitch for Worthing, since she disapproves of him.
Meanwhile, Algernon also pretends to be Earnest and heads to the country where he encounters Cecily and the two become immediately smitten with each other. Whereupon, Worthing, then Gwendolyen, followed not much later by Lady Bracknell, arrive in the country. Throw in a pastor, a butler, and a governess, and you have a most delightful, farcical battle of the sexes and classes.
There is a reason of course why this play—as opposed to “Ideal” or the salacious and ground-breaking “Salome”—is Wilde’s most popular play. For one thing, it’s just about perfect in dealing with serious things in a frivolous way—there is no scene more delicious than when Gwendolyn and Cecily, straight-backed and steely, sit down to tea and cakes and muffins and size each other up. It’s a battle of powerful insincerities stated sweetly and with a touch of both sugar and bitters. It’s much the same as when Lady Bracknell measures Cecily as a lovely girl, and bashes her hair, her dress and so forth in devastating and perfunctory fashion. In those days, a woman couldn’t simply say I’m wearing Ralph Lauren, but was immediately spotted for being not quite up to stuff.
There’s also the problem of Worthing not really knowing who he is—as a baby, he was left in a train station in a handbag. The secret behind this little bit of problem is one of maneuvers which Shakespeare often used himself. It’s the kind of things where love is dropped in a box neatly tied with a bow, just waiting to be discovered and resolved.
The cast is letter-perfect, especially Anthony Roach as Algernon, who looks and acts like a refined sort of wastrel, whose stock in trade is a kind of nearly insufferable charm. The two young ladies—Vanessa Morosco as Gwendolen and Katie Fabel as Cecil make great high-spirited foils and sisters to each other. It’s also great to see Floyd King back in the WSTC company as the pastor, revealing once again how to turn a double take and reaction into an Olympian quadruple take.
“Earnest” was Oscar Wilde’s breakthrough play, his first that made the upper classes squirm and like it because they were being amused, even as they were being verbally assaulted. He became a high society darling, achieved fame, wealth and if not acceptance, a certain delicious, acceptable notoriety which lasted only until he was brought down by a relationship he had with Lord Alfred Douglas, which would ensue in suits and Wilde being sent to prison for “gross indecency.” He never again returned to his adopted homeland, to be a proper, aristocratic Englishman. He died in 1900 in Paris.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is Wilde before all that—at the top of his game. He could say with no modesty, but great accuracy, that “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” And in “Earnest,” it’s a delicious and true declaration.
“The Importance of Being Earnest,” a Shakespeare Theatre Company production, is at the Lansburgh Theatre through March 2.