THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
A half hour into the Body Politic’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a woman behind me very softly threw up. It was so efficient, even decorous, that it barely disturbed the patrons near her, let alone the performance. In a strange way her unavoidable act seemed a complement to the play: something very natural had been restrained till it was all but harmless.
That’s how Oscar Wilde has shaped his master comedy of 1895, which he called “a trivial play for serious people.” Earnest not only depicts the characters’ delicate lust for status and property but the marriage mating game. But Wilde shrewdly overlays these seamy urges with his own elaborate artifices; the result is a kind of artistry of repression that parallels the social sort he spoofs.
A play that declares “We live in an age of surfaces” proves it with its machinery. The characters seem such conventional creatures that the subversion each addlepated non sequitur expresses is totally unexpected. Wilde said that “the very essence of romance is uncertainty,” but the maxim also applies to his comedy, where surprises–especially verbal surprises–are of the essence. Here, for instance, without sensing the slightest contradiction, Cecily can describe her diary as “a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.”
What fascinates is not the question of who ends up with whom, and when and how; it’s not even Wilde’s unstoppable flow of effortless wit. It’s the sight of Wilde’s cunning poseurs dexterously and unhesitatingly replacing one fashionable deception with another serviceable lie. Earnest is packed with multilayered prevarications. (It was this calculated insincerity that made G.B. Shaw, the only critic to pan this instant hit, call Wilde’s nonsense “hateful” and “sinister” and say that it exhibited “real degeneracy.”)
Fictions abound. Wilde’s elegant dilettantes Algernon Moncrieff (“He has nothing but looks everything”) and Jack Worthing have each concocted an all-purpose charade to conceal their secret love lives (something the homosexual Wilde did with his marriage). Algernon has invented a friend, Bunbury, whose many convenient illnesses allow Algernon to escape his dowager Aunt Augusta’s social predations.
Equally evasive, the prudish Jack has sequestered his lovely ward, Cecily, at his country estate, hoping to keep her pure by keeping her cloistered (like Agnes in Moliere’s School for Wives). He regularly runs off to London under the pretext of having to care for his sinful (imaginary) brother, Ernest. (Jack has reason to prefer fiction to fact: all he knows of his own origins is that he was deposited in Victoria Station in a lady’s handbag.)
Young Cecily’s imagination confounds her guardian’s fabrications, however: she’s in love with the unseen Ernest–or more properly, with his noble name. (How typical that a Wilde character should confuse a name with a quality!) Without ever having met him, Cecily has recorded their tempestuous courtship in her diary. The other lady in question is Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen Fairfax, Jack’s fatuous but iron-willed fiancee; she too loves the name Ernest, which–swallowing another of Jack’s lies–she believes to be his own.
Aside from the difficulty that both girls are in love with a nonexistent Ernest, the formidable Aunt Augusta (aka Lady Bracknell) refuses to allow her daughter Gwendolen to “form an alliance with a parcel”–Jack. She also wants to manage her feckless nephew Algernon’s future, and knows that his one hope for success lies in a modern marriage–i.e., a merger with money. So Lady Bracknell gives Cecily a grilling that would be cruel if it weren’t hilarious: the poor girl must prove her dowry is sufficiently comfortable and her soul sufficiently shallow to satisfy London society. Wilde concludes his hothouse hilarity with revelations every bit as contrived as the inconsequential conflicts they resolve.
Much of the satire plays as if Wilde had anticipated his imminent fall from grace (he let himself be exposed as a seducer of boys): before being sentenced to two years of hard labor, he in effect attacked the high society that would turn on him. (Interestingly, the Body Politic fails to mention in the program the reason for Wilde’s “trial, imprisonment, and disgrace.”)
The Body Politic staging is itself earnest and engaging–but it won’t pass for inspired. Director Pauline Brailsford rightly preserves the crisp pace that verbal farce requires–sometimes at the cost of trampling on the audience’s laughter. The look of the period is well captured by Kent Goetz’s filigreed, cream-colored Art Nouveau set and Andrew Vincent’s suitable fashions. And Brailsford’s rather subdued, occasionally bland direction remains faithful to Wilde’s instructions: “It is absolutely essential to the success of this piece that it should be played with the most perfect earnestness and gravity throughout. . . . Directly the actors show that they are conscious of the absurdity of their utterances the piece begins to drag.”
Happily that never happens, but a few sterling performances can’t make up for the absence of a well-honed ensemble. The sheer unevenness of talent here rules out the smooth stylization Wilde requires.
To begin with the best, James Deuter’s Lady Bracknell is gender bending so remarkable that his failure to convey the dragon lady’s full fury doesn’t matter much. Pursing his mouth like Jack Benny on alum, waddling about like a tiny galleon, Deuter chews over each idiotic remark and then spits it out with a merciless deadpan. His stuffed bosom alone is a comic phenomenon that atones for much.
Also delightful is Celene Evans, pertly puncturing fatuities as Cecily. Evans’s capricious airhead is not only believable but comparatively complex. Kate Goehring’s Gwendolen initially seems muted, even tepid (especially in light of Goehring’s considerable comic skills, recently displayed in Bailiwick Repertory’s Laughing Wild). But Goehring can snap a throwaway zinger all the way to the last row, and in her devastating tea-party squabble with Cecily, she drops the demure, dull facade and bares some teeth.
As Cecily’s duplicitous wooer Algernon, Donald Brearley has the right flippant delivery and certainly looks the upper-class twit. But he mistakenly treats his man of leisure too literally; that leisure should not apply to the line readings. This Algie needs a cutting edge. Henry Godinez, as the prudish rake Jack, needs much more–like comic timing, a believable bluster, an outsize slow burn, and quicker reactions. We’re ahead of him far too often.
Playing Miss Prism, a ridiculously respectable governess with a past, Joan Spatafora simpers and sputters but never quite inhabits her caricature. James McCance, as the rector who adores her, has the right High Church unctuousness but takes it no further.
Wilde would have loved Harry Althaus’s cameo as Lane, Algernon’s servant; without really intending to, Althaus steals his brief, early scene. But then it was all but handed to him anyway.