At the premiere of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895, one critic wrote, “What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals, creates its own canons and conventions, and is nothing but an absolutely willful expression of an irrepressibly witty personality?” To which my response is, “By all means, encourage audiences to see this wonderfully satirical window into the morals and manners of late Victorian society!”
Two River Theatre in Red Bank has mounted Wilde’s comedy, a tale of the chasms between external appearance and internal reality, a topic much in the news today. As directed by Obie Award winner and Tony nominee Michael Cumpsty, Wilde’s characters blithely toss off many of his best-known and wittiest aphorisms with what they believe is the utmost sincerity.
Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing are devoted to the Victorian idea of earnestness: maintaining serious moral and ethical standards, at least for public consumption. Yet both men conveniently rationalize leading double lives. John, guardian to young heiress Cecily Cardew, has invented a younger wastrel brother, Ernest, whom he must frequently visit in town. As Ernest, John woos Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin. Algernon, on his part, has created an imaginary invalid friend, Bunbury, whom he “visits” in the country whenever he wants to avoid social obligations to his Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother.
He later takes on the identity of Ernest to woo Cecily against John’s wishes. As for Gwendolen and Cecily, they are earnest in their affections toward these two men while making it clear that were either of them named anything other than Ernest the girls’ affections would cease. Everything comes to a head at John’s country estate amidst governesses, handbags, christenings, class differences, railway stations, and such refined crises (since everyone is being so earnest) until, in a burst of wildly improbable contrivance, love triumphs with happy endings for all.
The play comes alive whenever Randy Danson’s imperious Lady Bracknell is on stage. One of the theatre’s great comic creations, she is the sun around which all other characters revolve. Danson adds her own stamp of brook-no-nonsense fortitude to the role; her Lady Bracknell is a strong-willed, uncompromising dreadnought in silks. Supremely confident in herself and her opinions, Lady Bracknell has been a favorite role for actresses such as Edith Evans and Judi Dench as well as such actors as Geoffrey Rush and Brian Bedford.
Unfortunately, this production loses energy when Lady Bracknell is not present. Rosa Gilmore and Liesel Allen Yeager fare best as Gwendolen and Cicely, earnestly in love with their respective beaux so long as their romantic fantasies remain undisturbed by reality. Sam Lilja and Federico Rodriguez, as Algernon and John, are overshadowed by their respective love partners, too often substituting rapidity of speech for comedic action. Some sharp comic observations are made by Algernon’s valet, Lane, played by Henry Vick, while Bob Mackasek, as Merriman, John’s butler, and the minor romantic couple of Chris Kipiniak’s Rev. Canon Chasuble and Mahira Kakkar’s Miss Prism add welcome humor.
The Importance of Being Earnest recalls to the thoughtful theatergoer the folly of those trying to live double lives today as well as Wilde’s fate when his own double life was revealed. On top of this, wordplay like Oscar Wilde’s is a rare commodity: sharp, witty, parodic, yet so skillfully written that its potential targets in any era take no notice of the barbs aimed at them. This excellent play deserves to be seen, and I encourage you to make the trip to Red Bank to see it.
The Importance of Being Earnest is presented by Two River Theater in Red Bank through Dec. 3, 2017. For tickets and information, visit tworivertheater.org