WASHINGTON, February 10, 2014 − Five years before his tragic demise in Paris, where he lived out his final days as a bankrupt outcast, Oscar Wilde reached the zenith of his colorful and notorious career when his farcical social comedy, “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895) premiered in London. It was the fourth of his series of social comedies satirizing the absurdities of Victorian society. Preceded in past seasons by Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” it’s also the latest of the playwright’s social comedies to be staged here—brilliantly—by the Shakespeare Theater Company.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” tells the story of Jack Worthing (Gregory Wooddell), an apparently self-made man who uses the alias “Ernest” as an alias, enabling him to lead completely different lives at his country and city homes. In his ne’er-do-well, high society guise, he’s able to pursue his love interest, Gwendolyn (Vanessa Morosco) who observes that one of his greatest attractions for her is his name: Ernest.
Jack’s equally cheeky, smart-aleck friend, confirmed bachelor Algernon Moncrieff (Anthony Roach), knows his friend only as Ernest, but discovers Jack’s name game when he spots a clue on “Ernest’s” cigarette case. Algy empathizes with Jack’s reasoning and confesses that he, too, uses the excuse of visiting his ailing, imaginary friend “Bunbury” in the country when he wishes to escape social obligations in the city.
When he learns of the existence of Jack’s attractive young ward Cecily (exquisitely played by a lovely Katie Fabel), who resides at his country estate, Algie contrives to pay her an unannounced visit, setting the wheels of the plot into motion.
“Earnest’s” two male leads capture the essence of the Victorian gentleman-dandy in the 1890s, both characters not dissimilar to the persona Wilde himself crafted and outrageously flaunted in his public life. Despite the powerful stage presence of Siân Phillips—who perfectly nails Lady Bracknell’s air of aristocratic superiority, setting an ironically serious backdrop to all this play’s romantic shenanigans—it’s the two leading men who really carry “Earnest.”
After all, Gregory Wooddell as “Jack” Worthing and Anthony Roach as Algernon Moncrieff are the romantic protagonists and comic heroes of this Victorian “buddy play.” Both actors exhibit a high level of comic and stylistic skills as they relentlessly but good-naturedly pursue their respective love interests.
Whether fussing over the quality and necessity of cucumber sandwiches or coordinating their hectic and duplicitous social calendars, these actors, and their characters, transform their self-indulgent social fetishes into high comedy as they speed this already fast-moving play along toward its inevitably farcical conclusion. It’s simply a great evening of comic theater.
But this production is also very much a team effort. In addition to the fine character portrayals by a first-rate cast, this production is visually dashing as well. Costume designer Robert Perdziola dresses his male leads to the nines highlighting the kind of high-fashion favored during the period, including the type of pastel accessories that Oscar famously flaunted before his court battle with the Marquess of Queensberry destroyed both his life and his career.
The STC design team once again delivered the transformative experience I’ve come to expect and appreciate with each visit to the Lansburgh Theatre – extraordinary scenery, staging, and lighting that move the play from an elegant drawing room in the first act to an expansive garden setting. The latter projects the overwhelming presence of a fragrant, light-filled English garden, a letter-perfect backdrop to this play’s charmingly silly finale.
This production is ably directed by Keith Baxter who previously directed STC’s production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” In this production he demonstrates, once again, a deft hand that cleverly layers the playwright’s mockery of social class snobbery and decorum.
“Of Wilde’s other plays, this one is in a category all by itself, Keith Baxter notes. “‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ without any argument at all, is the greatest example of high comedy in the English language,” he notes. And with regard to this production, we would emphatically have to agree.
Rating: * * * * (Four out of four stars)
Note: The Shakespeare Theatre Company, recipient of the 2012 Regional Theatre Tony Award®, announces a second extension of its current production, “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde, which now plays through March 16, 2014, at the Lansburgh Theatre (450 7th Street NW).
Tickets and information: Tickets priced from $20-115. For tickets and information, visit the Shakespeare Theatre web site.