By Jean Lowerison
The subtitle of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” gives it away — “A trivial comedy for serious people” — though I submit that limiting it to “serious” people slights what is certainly the funniest and may very well be the best-known and most-produced farce in the English language.
Oscar Wilde, the son of Irish intellectuals, was an iconoclast from the get-go and while at Oxford, became involved in the aesthetic and decadent movements of the 19th century. The former celebrated art for its own sake and style over substance; the second, artificiality over nature and ennui or boredom over hard work.
It’s style over substance that is on abundant display in “Earnest,” Wilde’s last play, which skewers hypocrisy, social convention and even honesty, as its characters utter one great bon mot after another on their way to getting what they want by whatever means necessary.
Maria Aitken directs a jaunty production of “Earnest” through March 4 on the Old Globe’s Shiley Stage.
Algernon “Algy” Moncrieff (Christian Conn) is in headlong pursuit of pleasure and amusement. To this end, he has invented an imaginary friend named Bunbury who has a peculiar habit of taking ill and requiring care whenever Algy’s Aunt Augusta, aka Lady Bracknell, has invited him to one of her deadly dull dinner parties.
On the other hand, Algy’s friend John, aka Jack, Worthing (Matt Schwader) is serious about most things, including love — especially after he meets Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen (Kate Abbruzzese), who is not only lovely, but rich. Jack also has a “Bunbury” — a ne’er-do-well “brother” named Ernest, who “lives” at Jack’s country estate.
Of course, there are establishment types who will try to throw a monkey wrench into these plans.
Lady Bracknell (Helen Carey), for example, is a society snob intent on finding a proper match for Gwendolen. She is quite sure Jack is not worthy to court, much less marry Gwendolen — especially when she learns he was a “foundling,” left in a handbag at Victoria Station as an infant.
“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune,” she sniffs. “To lose both looks like carelessness.”
But Gwendolen, a headstrong young woman determined to marry a man named Ernest, is in love with Jack, or at least with the Jack who occasionally calls himself Ernest.
Jack’s ward, 18-year-old Cecily Cardew (Helen Cespedes) lives in Jack’s country home. She has romantic notions and a diary of imaginary adventures, beginning when Algy shows up at Jack’s country estate posing as the charming scoundrel Ernest. Cecily has little interest in the efforts of Miss Prism (Jane Ridley), who tries to teach the girl German (and has a most interesting secret of her own).
Mistaken identities, charming lies and the gleeful skewering of Victorian conventions abound in Wilde’s wondrously amusing piece. The Globe does it proud in both acting and production values.
Matt Schwader’s John/Jack Worthing is a charming bounder and a worthy partner for Abbruzzese’s lovely Gwendolen. Cespedes is a hoot as the giddy Cecily Cardew and makes a fitting partner for Conn’s Algernon.
Helen Carey’s interpretation of Lady Bracknell is fun to watch, less gorgon and more sniper in a role often played these days by a man in drag. Rodney Gardiner’s Chasuble, rector of the local church, and Jane Ridley’s Miss Prism, are amusing in their tentative pairing efforts.
Hugh Landwehr’s sumptuous set for Algy’s town digs boasts rich colors and objets d’art, a perfect setting for a proper tea (with cucumber sandwiches, of course). Fabio Toblini’s beautiful (and sometimes comic) costumes add to the period atmosphere and luxurious look of the set.
Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s original music and sound design are appropriate as well.
Though the play ends happily — and became a hit in 1895 — Wilde’s life did not. Though married, Wilde was gay, and a short time after “Earnest” opened, he was arrested and convicted of “gross indecency.” The sentence — two years at hard labor — ruined his health and he died soon after his release in Paris, a broken man. But he left us some wonderful plays and poetry. “The Importance of Being Earnest” may well be the best of them.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.