“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!”
So says Algernon Moncrief, chief idler and ne’er-do-well in Oscar Wilde’s classic drawing room comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, now running at the H St. Playhouse in a new production by Scena Theatre. While Algie’s wry observation shifts Earnest into high gear early in the play’s first act, it might equally apply to Scena’s production, a gender-bending twist on the original. Truth is, Scena’s re-interpretation, under the direction of Robert McNamara, seems uncomfortable and strained. Yet the reasons why aren’t exactly simple.
The Importance of Being Earnest has long been a favorite with theatergoers who prize its almost unprecedented abundance of wit and paradoxical wisdom. Though the play’s nutty characters are relatively two-dimensional, the sheer inventiveness of their idle observations and pursuits proves consistently and brilliantly hilarious. At the same time, one can’t fail to miss Wilde’s rapier-like social satire on the utter corruption, pretension, and hypocrisy of upper-crust elites who, while hectoring the lower classes for their immorality, rarely observe solemn biblical dictates in their own daily affairs.
Structurally, The Importance of Being Earnest is the flamboyant Wilde’s clever twist on that old reliable plot device—the comedy of mistaken identity. Algernon and his pal John (“Jack”) Worthing discover, to their mutual delight and irritation, that they both enjoy employing fake identities when departing London to visit the country. Dubbed “Bunburying” after the imaginary invalid Algie frequently “visits” in the country to escape his tedious city relatives, this simple ruse gives both friends the opportunity to enjoy their secret identities unhindered.
Problem is, both fall in love with young women—Jack with Gwendolen Fairfax and Algie with Cecily Cardew—who erroneously believe their names to be “Ernest.” This causes endless problems for all—while conveniently supplying the key pun for the play’s title.
It’s all good fun, of course, with each of the characters behaving badly at all the right times, ultimately leading to a satisfactory if preposterous finale. Scena, however, decided to contribute an additional wry twist to their production . In addition to moving the action from the 1890s to the 1920s, all the characters trade places. In other words, the women play the men and the men play the women.
The idea of gender switching isn’t exactly new. From Mozart’s youthful Cherubino (Marriage of Figaro), to films such as “Some Like It Hot” (1959), “Tootsie” (1982) and many others before and since, we’ve witnessed gender-bending, transvestism, and cross-dressing many times before in the performing arts. The humor of it often lies in the simple hilarity of one gender attempting, however feebly, to impersonate the other.
Robert McNamara, in his “Director’s Notes,” indicates he has something else in mind. First, in a way, he wants to “avenge” Oscar’s untimely death which resulted, at least in part, from his suffering under the British penal codes which strongly punished open homosexual behavior (“gross indecency”) at the time.
McNamara also encourages the audience to free itself from the “masks” of conventional “gender roles and sexual orientation.” Yet this latter notion seems almost quaint. American theater and film productions have been relentlessly freeing us from gender roles since at least the 1960s. What was once thought unconventional, avant-garde, has, arguably, now become the convention.
In any event, a production rises or falls on the quality of the final product, and the quality of this one was uneven last Friday evening. Earnest boasts an enormous amount of dense, witty dialogue, and the actors seemed to have it down quite well. But it takes more than that to make this play work and some key elements were lacking.
After the opening scene sets the plot in motion, this play’s tempo should pick up steadily, setting an increasingly madcap pace that builds to its deus ex machina climax. Alas, the pacing hit its stride only fitfully Friday evening. Part of this may have been due to the cast still feeling uncomfortable in its collective, cross-gendered skin. At points, particularly near the end of the second act, one actor or another inadvertently muffed the correct gender-switched reference. If the actors are still getting confused during week two of a production, what’s an audience to think?
More importantly, a key element in a successful performance of Earnest is the internalization of a kind of faux-casualness by the actors. This allows them to fire off Wilde’s one-liners almost deadpan and without self-consciousness, thus rendering the playwright’s nearly endless comic observations even funnier. With the occasional exception of Brian Hemmingsen’s Lady Bracknell, the rest of the cast didn’t quite achieve this level of enlightened distance, which made for some uneven patches throughout the evening.
Nonetheless, when the pacing did click Friday evening, the characters—and the audience—came to life. More would have been better.
Sara Barker’s dapper Algernon kept spirits high throughout the evening. Barker came perhaps the closest to grasping the essence of Algie’s creative irresponsibility as well as his disdain for all things boring. As Algie’s friend and sometime foe, Jack Worthing, Anne Nottage was nearly as successful. While a confirmed Bunburyist himself, Jack tends to take matters with greater seriousness than Algie, creating a constant irritation between the two, which was frequently reflected in Nottage’s pained expressions.
As Gwendolen and Cecily, Tyler Herman and John Robert Keena were quite amusing, although Keena seemed to have his female shtick down a bit better. An additional plus—the hunky Keena’s well-muscled arms were doubly incongruous when seen protruding from his frilly pink party dress, maybe the best running sight gag of the evening.
For all of its headlong hilarity, there’s one potential flaw in Earnest’s script. The extreme tediousness of Lady Bracknell can bring the pacing of this play to a screeching halt if the part isn’t given to an exceptionally adept actor. Fortunately, Brian Hemmingsen, as Lady B, kept things moving along and thus, blessedly, contributed to the necessary lightness of this play rather than smogging its dialogue in.
The supporting cast contributed some nice character bits, particularly Stacy Whittle’s Rev. Chasuble, along with butlers Lane (Ellie Nicoll) and the dour Merriman (Mary Suib). Kim Curtis, however, seemed a bit uncomfortable as the ditzy Miss Prizm.
Scena’s summery, minimalist set was more than adequate for this play, whose success depends far more on the crisp and casual delivery of its rapid-fire dialogue than it does on props or costuming. However, Alisa Mandel’s ice-cream suits and party dresses did contribute nicely to the frivolity of the festivities.
Scena’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest is a decent evening at the theater, though not a great one. Wilde’s devastating one-liners and inescapable social satire are hard to spoil in any format. This production, for all its faults, does still pack some punch, albeit intermittently.
It might have been even better, though, if the play had been cast as Oscar wrote it. His pointed, yet surprisingly good-natured criticism of hypocritical elitism and upper crust piety still rings true today, with our own fair city offering plenty of splendid current examples. Burdening Earnest with unnecessary additional layers of meaning can only serve, in the end, to detract from its timelessness and perfection.
The Importance of Being Earnest plays through Aug 29, 2010.
For details, directions and tickets, click here.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST