It has been well over a century since Oscar Wilde penned “The Importance of Being Earnest,” his linguistically intoxicating comedy of manners, social class pretensions, the differences between the sexes, the ways of city versus country life, and the essential pleasure of having a muffin with your tea. But he remains the undisputed master mixologist of art and artifice.
‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST’
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions
Proof of this can be found in the altogether delightful production now at Writers Theatre, where a gifted cast, under the direction of Michael Halberstam, has wrapped itself around Wilde’s matchless aphorisms, epigrams and scintillating (if often winningly trivial) banter with such panache that you might well mistake them for eminent members of English society at the moment the Victorian era was giving way to the more fashionable and frolicsome Edwardian era.
That blend of art and artifice is immediately telegraphed in designer Collette Pollard’s playful set, a mix of city and country abodes featuring marble arches and floors, a floral garden wall and a massive home library. Add Mara Blumenfeld’s to-die-for costumes and the style quotient skyrockets.
So what is “Earnest” all about? Well, it’s about the importance of a name and address, about the crazy pursuit of a mate, and about the ruses and distractions (dubbed “Bunburys” in this case) necessary for romance, as opposed to marriage, to flourish.
Algernon Moncrieff (Steve Haggard) is a well-bred rascal who thrives in the city, while his friend, John (“Ernest”) Worthing is a country gentleman desperate to marry Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Jennifer Latimore), the stunning daughter of Lady Bracknell (Shannon Cochran). Each man also has an “alibi” in the form of a perpetually ill friend (for Algernon) and a scoundrel brother (for John), that allows him to escape home as necessary, and pursue a libertine existence. Of course this duplicity generates no end of complications.
While John and Gwendolen agree to marry, Gwendolen’s mother will have none of it for, as it turns out, John does not meet her standards. In fact, he is a foundling who, as an infant, was left in a handbag in Victoria Station, rescued by a wealthy man, and now serves as guardian to that benefactor’s fetching daughter, Cecily Cardew (Rebecca Hurd). As it happens, Cecily and Algernon become infatuated at first glance, although Cecily’s diary would date things otherwise.
More explanation of the plot is hardly necessary except to say that it also involves Cecily’s deceptively prim governess and tutor, Miss Prism (Anita Chandwaney), her “friend,” Reverend Canon Chasuble (Aaron Todd Douglas), and the two very different butlers (one a model of sobriety, and the other invariably inebriated), both played hilariously by Ross Lehman. All of the characters, as it turns out, possess both goodness and mischief. And while the name of note is “Ernest,” it is earnestness that tends to be most valued, even if superficiality is the name of the game.
The sparkling wordplay, and the tension between innocence and experience, and true love and romantic whimsy, are played to perfection here, with sparkling banter and the characters’ beguiling assortment of quirks and obsessions driving it at rapid-fire speed. There is delicious interplay between Latimore and Goodrich, and Hurd and Haggard, with the two women, who bond in an instant friendship, a perfect mix of whipped cream and diamond-strong wills. Bracknell, usually played as a blue-blood battle-ax type (and sometimes even in drag), is here given the air of a snobby socialite of dazzling beauty by Cochran.
But in the end it is Wilde who rules the parlor, the garden, the library and the stage. Really, I ask you, who else could have a young girl complain that she hates studying German because she looks “perfectly plain” after such language lessons? Who else could come up with such sublime comments about relatives, the behavior of married couples, and the carelessness of “losing one’s parents”? And who, but Wilde, could devise a questionnaire for a potential husband quite as incisive as the one Bracknell uses to query Worthing, noting along the way that education in England “produces no effect whatsoever.”
Just grab a cucumber sandwich, pour some tea and enjoy Oscar.