The Importance of Being Earnest

Who doesn’t like a good, old fashioned, zesty satire, written with a palpable love of language and rapier wit? That’s what you get in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, given a superb production by Roundabout Theatre Company. At 116 years old, this Trivial Comedy for Serious People (as is its subtitle) is still as relevant and funny as ever.

The notable aspect of this production is that director Brian Bedford (whose keen knack for timing is on display here) doesn’t just direct the piece; he also stars as Lady Bracknell. This isn’t some campy performance, a drag show just for fun. My guess is that Bedford simply wanted to play the old broad. And it works so well because the whole play plays on people’s perceptions of what is appropriate and acceptable, and has every character pontificating on the merits of judging what’s on the surface, rather than something deeper. (To wit: Gwendolen asserts, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.”) It’s an interesting choice and because Bedford plays it straight, Lady Bracknell is rip-roaringly funny.

The importance of being earnest is explored in Wilde’s satire, with most of the characters valuing everything but actual earnestness. (Though the two young ladies greatly the value the name Ernest.) Algernon (Santino Fontana), or Algy as he’s affectionately called, is entertaining his friend John (David Furr), who has made up a brother called Ernest. In town (that is, to Algy and friends), John is known as Ernest and in the country, he’s John or Jack. Jack as Ernest is in love with Algy’s cousin, Gwendolen (Jessie Austrian), whose mother is Lady Bracknell (Bedford). Back in the country, Jack has a ward, Cecily (Charlotte Parry), with whom Algy, taking on the persona of Jack’s fake brother Ernest, falls in love. While pretending to be Ernest, no one, the men or women, are being particularly earnest. (The truth is seen as a last resort, and not terribly virtuous. As Algy says, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either and modern literature a complete impossibility.”)

Ultimately, Wilde’s sharpest satire is aimed as the class system in London. When Jack proposes to Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell won’t consent to the marriage until she knows more about his upbringing. When she learns Jack was abandoned in a train station, she says, “You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter - a girl brought up with the utmost care - to marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel?” Nevermind the fact that all his other answers have been satisfactory; that he’s a fairly good guy; and, oh yeah, he and Gwendolen are in love. Wilde’s mocking of the class system is most winningly given voice by Lady Bracknell’s bon mots, like this one: “Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.”

I could go on and on with favorite quotes from this play. I will spare you but do encourage you to pick up a copy and see this production.

Speaking of the production, I found this to move at an appropriately quick clip, with everyone on their game. In particular, I liked Santino Fontana’s Algy. He has a look and charm that reminded me a little bit of Paul Rudd and the characters he usually plays, so right away, though Algy is wholly superficial and has hilariously ridiculous notions about love, romance and marriage, I liked him. (Algy’s take on romance, etc.: “I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.”)

This production of The Importance of Being Earnest was originally supposed to be a limited run (it began in the fall) but being a top-notch show, it has extended and is now playing through July 3. Visit roundabouttheatre.org for more information and to purchase tickets.

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