THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is one of those shows that entertains not only with witty repartee, but also by being a comedy that uses its bountiful banter to mock society even as it does those very things itself.
In attempts to make it more than what it is other productions have succumbed to the impulse play to try to make it more clever and more ostentatious than it is by putting characters in drag or making everything over the top – as if being funny and entertaining isn’t enough. Wilde said it himself, “I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays”.
Luckily, the Old Globe’s production lets the play breathe and fully play in the delightful wordplay and social absurdity; satirizing social manners, self-importance, with a subversive and pointed wit that Wilde, and his audiences, so clearly relish.
Two friends, John and Algernon are men about town who delight in being able to be both sophisticated gentlemen with good reputations, and their ability to go have fun without it impacting those reputations. In a move Algernon calls “Bunburying” – they create imaginary people to lead double lives that allow them to escape their family responsibilities. In order to make the ruse work, Jack goes by the name Earnest in the city, and tells those in the country that he has a dandy of a little brother named “Earnest” in the city that he has to go look after on a frequent basis.
John loves Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, who loves John (but knows him as Earnest) but due to his unconventional parental origin story has been deemed by Gwendolen’s mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, unfit for her permission to marry Gwendolen.
When Algernon discovers that John has a lovely ward named Cecily, who only knows of “Earnest” as Jacks wayward younger brother and has never met him, he decides that this all sounds like too much fun to ignore.
Matt Schwader as John and Christian Conn as Algernon have an enviable ease with the dialogues bon mots, and keeping the witty discourse natural sounding. Conn manages to make his mischievous and self-absorbed Algernon endearing. Schwader strikes the balance between uptight of a guardian concerned about his reputation and a man about town who would befriend someone like Algernon. Their argument and passive aggressive declarations over the muffins at tea are delightfully ridiculous and petulant.
It’s the interplay between Kate Abbruzzese as Gwendolen and Helen Cespedes as Cecily that truly stands out. Their interplay, varying from sweetness and light, to using female friendship as a weapon, and then as an ally, is full of arched eyebrows, poses, and their exaggerated pretentiousness is a delight to watch. Helen Carey brings the formidable society dragon of Lady Bracknell, with all of her snobbishness and declarations, to life as a foil to them all.
Jane Ridley as the Governess Miss Prisim and Rodney Gardiner as the Reverend Chasuble with their subdued courtship offers a sweet counterpoint to all of the confusion the society couples duplicity has caused. Daniel Harray and Sam Avishay as Moulton and Merriman respectively round out this lovely and talented cast.
The gorgeous costumes by Fabio Toblini are lush and serve as beautiful jewels to play against the sumptuous silks and satins on the set of drawing rooms, garden, and library as designed by Hugh Lanweir.
Hypocrisy may be something to despise, but watching this witty wordplay gently and hilariously preach “earnestness” without actually practicing the virtue is too entertaining to miss. This is a clever, energetic, and very earnest “Earnest” by letting its own virtues shine through, no extra cleverness needed.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is playing through March 4th. For show time and ticket information go to www.theoldglobe.org