Oscar winner?

The Lyric’s Importance of Being Earnest
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 13, 2008
WHO’S WHO?: In one of the play’s many instances of mistaken identity, Jack tries to embrace Miss
Prism as his long-lost mother.

In his program note for Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest (up through June 7), producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos calls Oscar Wilde’s play “arguably the greatest comedy ever written.” I would argue the point — a few Shakespeare plays come to mind, and that’s just in English — but Earnest alone would justify Veloudos’s continuation that “we should never think of Wilde as simply a manipulator of language; he was, indeed, one of the great social commentators of his time.” Of course, language in Wilde is social commentary. It’s too bad you ever have to see the title of this play: when you hear Algernon pronounce its famous final line, you can’t tell whether he’s discovered the importance of being earnest or Ernest.

By any name, E(a)rnest is about honesty and identity and our blithe disregard for the meaning of the words we speak. Algernon Montcrief and John (goes by Jack) Worthing would like to be earnest, but that’s generally beyond them. Both would also like to be Ernest, because the woman each loves — Jack’s ward Cecily and Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen — has determined, independently, that she could never marry a man who isn’t named Ernest. It’s as if Cecily and Gwendolen had decided that if they can’t have earnest (and in Wilde’s world that’s never likely), they can at least have Ernest — a conclusion that has both Jack and Algernon posing as Jack’s (non-existent) younger brother, Ernest. That’s just the start; the play takes on overtones of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte as you wonder why Algernon is so eager to keep Jack away from Gwendolen and Jack likewise to keep Algernon away from Cecily. And we haven’t touched on Jack and Algernon’s feelings for each other. It’s a play about honesty and identities — how we’re all more than one person. At the end, Jack discovers that he has two names: Ernest John.

The Lyric offers some sly, Wildean touches in a discreetly pruned, generally creditable production. Set designer Brynna Bloomfield’s conception of Algernon’s flat includes three prints of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Wilde’s Salomé, and the piece, unidentified by Wilde, that Algernon is misplaying on the piano as the lights go up is “La donna è mobile.” Gail Astrid Buckley’s period costumes revel in thoughtful detail like Jack’s gray spats and the spiky pheasant feathers in Lady Bracknell’s hat. Bob Jolly as Algernon’s butler, Lane, is as cool as the cucumber sandwiches that Algernon orders for Lady Bracknell (his aunt, and Gwendolen’s mother) and eats himself, his speech a model of Wildean weight and cadence. Dafydd Rees is a dog-eared delight as Jack’s butler, Merriman, and Bobbie Steinbach’s Lady Bracknell, though less draconian than some versions (notably Judi Dench in the 2001 film), has the timing to make her plethora of one-liners (“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”) work.

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Related: No alibi needed, Missed manners, Carried away, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde,  More more >
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