By John Quinn
I frequently have wild Saturday nights. They usually end with me sitting alone, salt tears spoiling my cheap scotch, as I rail at the cruel hand that Fate has dealt me. This Saturday was an exception. I had a Wilde night of giggles and guffaws as Tipping Point Theatre kicked off Season 5 with “The Importance of Being Earnest.” We’re all pun and games around here; we call our annual awards celebration “One Wilde Night,” but you don’t know how long I’ve waited to use this groaner in a review.
Writer and poet Oscar Wilde had an incomparable command of the English language and the wit to employ it to maximum advantage. The social farce, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” is perhaps his best known and best loved work. His subtitle, “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” does not begin to describe it. “Earnest” is a wicked jab at the turned-up nose of “proper” society and it artificial values.
The theme was outlined by the playwright himself in an opening night interview, Feb. 14, 1895:
“What sort of play are we to expect?”
“It is exquisitively (sic) trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy and it has its philosophy.”
“That we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”
The bubble is the perfect metaphor for Wilde’s view of social conventions – fragile constructs that are irresistible to pop.
The plot is as gossamer as a spider web and about as complex. In order to escape his social obligations, John Worthing (James R. Kuhl) creates a fictitious alter-ego. He’s “John” at his county home, but John’s wastrel younger brother “Earnest” in London. As Earnest, he proposes to Gwendolyn Fairfax (Hallie B. Bard), daughter of Lady Bracknell (Terry Heck). Worthing is simply unworthy to make Bracknell’s A-list of eligible bachelors. A trip through the lost and found reveals Earnest’s true identity to his friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Peter C. Prouty). Algie uses the alias to woo John’s young, country-raised ward, Cecily Cardew (Christina L. Flynn), behind John’s back.
That’s just Act I.
With identities mistaken and identities discovered, promises broken and fibs flying it’s hard to imagine that this will end well. But, after all, “Earnest” IS a comedy, complete with a happily ever after.
Rounding out the cast in some really odd-ball roles are Hugh Maguire as the Rev. Cannon Chasuble and Ruth Crawford and Miss Prisim, pedantic to the extreme, and Brian P. Sage as not one but two beleaguered butlers. The trio is really having fun exploring the eccentrics.
Director Julia Glander makes all the right choices. The performances are top-notch. The lines are declaimed in a “veddy, veddy” stiff-upper-lip parody of privileged-class British inflection; it’s comically effective and not the least bit camp.
English essayist Max Beerbohm described “Earnest” as “littered with chiseled apothegms – witticisms unrelated to action or character.” Indeed. Wilde had an opinion about everything and wasn’t afraid to share it. In this production, a lot of those epigrams are tossed directly at the audience, and the “see how clever I am” delivery is just choice. Usually you find one Wilde character that gets all the bon mots. Here the goodies are shared more equally. If one performance stands out from the rest, it’s Heck’s Lady Bracknell. Both snob and hypocrite, Bracknell embodies what Wilde loathed in the stratified culture. Hence, she has some of the best zingers.
What sets this production apart from others is Glander’s decision to jump a generation forward from the Victorian Era, when Wilde first began cutting away at the foundations of proper society, to the Roaring ’20s, when the walls came tumblin’ down. This allows scenic artist Monika Essen to play around in early Art Deco, turning out a bright confection of a set to complement in-the-round audience seating. It provides the perfect neutral canvas for the rich colors and bold patterns of Christianne Meyers’ costumes.
In sum, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is pure delight to both eye and ear. For this reviewer, it’s been a very good weekend. You’ll find my byline on reviews for three comedies, written by playwrights gifted with rare wit and a gentle tolerance for human frailty. As comedy continues a decline towards shock humor as its main tool, can productions like these point the way to a more uplifted common culture? I hope so, or next Saturday I’ll be sitting again contemplating salty scotch.
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’
Tipping Point Theatre, 361 E. Cady St., Northville. Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 18, plus New Year’s Eve; no performance Thanksgiving. $28-$30; $75 NYE. 248-347-0003. http://www.tippingpointtheatre.com