Missed manners

Firehouse’s engaging Earnest
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  June 13, 2006

HEARTS ON FIRE: Smith and O’Connor.

Talk about passive-aggressive. Through the high spirits, through the frivolity, if Oscar Wilde had been any more dismissive of women in The Importance of Being Earnest, they would have exited for good after their first scenes. But then neither we nor, more importantly, he would have had the rollicking good fun with wordplay as they proceed to amiably self-destruct.

The production at Firehouse Theater (through July 1), directed by Barbara Finelli, doesn’t get in the way of the subversive social commentary, or social comedy, in what is arguably the most trenchant comedy of manners in the English language.

To be fair, in Earnest Wilde had women epitomize the hilarity of hypocrisy rather than claim it as their exclusive domain. And we sense throughout the play that he is pleased that they do so so well, that if they were hypocrites with a wink instead of wide-eyed innocence, he’d downright admire them. After all, this is the man who declared that “the first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.” And let’s not forget that “being earnest,” in the conversation code of his time and set, meant being homosexual, the state he was famously jailed and ruined for.

The two men in this play act oh-so-superior and in charge. Yet it’s the women who, when it counts, control the action, with Wilde in the wings going “tsk-tsk.”

The set-up is simpler than it sounds. John Worthing (Andrew Stigler) is Jack when in the country but is known as Ernest in town. That not only improves his privacy in both places but allows him to escape to town when he likes, on the pretext of attending to the trouble-making brother Ernest that he invented. The only person who knows this secret is his friend Algernon Montcrieff (Ger O’Connor), who goes to Jack’s country estate pretending to be that rascally brother Ernest.

The two attractive young ladies who come into play are Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (Renée Russo), whom Jack proposes to, and Jack’s ward Cecily Cardew (Anna Smith), who steals Algy’s heart at first sight. If that weren’t silly enough, not only are both women convinced that their moon-eyed suitors are named Ernest, but they would refuse to marry them if the men were called by anything other than that intensely sincere name.

Wicked Wilde. He implies that both young women are misspelling the name and confusing it with the adjective. Moreover, we audience members are treated to a gay-eyed view of the whole marriage trap and Victorian-era notion of romance. Two otherwise intelligent men are rendered brain dead by two female flibbertigibbets who couldn’t be more superficial.

Ironically, despite that being so, the three main women in the play do the best jobs of acting. Partly that’s because the roles of Jack and Algernon are drawn with such broad crayon strokes that the characters can simply be held up like cardboard cutouts and still earn laughs. Stigler plays Jack as self-confident and, well, earnest, to reasonable effect. And O’Connor plays Algy, who gets most of the Wildean witticisms, as a supercilious snob who dispenses bon mots like bonbons. (“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!”)

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