Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is most famously a delectable comedy of manners, a souffle of nimble wordplay, upper-crust peccadilloes and absurd romantic complications.
Those attributes of the 1895 classic are well-mined in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s graceful new mounting of the play, directed by Victor Pappas.
In the hands of Pappas and his cast, Wilde’s masterwork fairly purrs along. The precise comic timing and distinctive characterizations come from actors attuned to the elevated nonsense and elegantly perverse mind games of Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people.”
Connor Toms displays toned comic reflexes (physical and verbal) as Jack, a well-heeled bachelor who escapes boredom and responsibility by creating a second identity for himself named Ernest.
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Quinn Franzen complements him as Jack’s arch pal Algernon, an impishly blasé wag of the idle class who has invented his own persona of convenience, Bumbry.
The witty friends meet their pretty female matches in Jack’s young ward Cecily (Hana Lass) and Algy’s wily cousin Gwendolen (Emily Grogan) — no slouches themselves with a witticism, as these suspected foes turn into allies.
Jack and Gwendolen, and Cecily and Algy, are not exactly red-hot lovers — their courtships are elegantly coy. And to be wed, they have to win over Gwendolen’s haughty mother, Lady Bracknell. Kimberly King plays her in richly amusing detail, as a squinty, imperious standard-bearer for British snobbery.
On Carey Wong’s “Masterpiece Theatre”-worthy period sets (the terraced garden of Jack’s country estate alone is Anglophile heaven), Wilde’s glittering repartee of contrarian aphorisms sails back and forth — like the birdie in an extended game of badminton.
“The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous,” Algy declares, in mock disgust. “It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.” Gwendolen hopes Jack “has not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy. “
Decrees Lady Bracknell, “I am not in favor of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, [which is] never advisable.”
The play’s couplings hinge on farce contrivances so sublimely silly, only a genius could have devised them. Prominent (and Shakespearean): Jack’s dubious origins as a babe left at Victoria Station — a mystery entangling Cecily’s dotty governess Miss Prism (Kate Wisniewski), who is adored by the avuncular Rev. Chasuble (Charles Leggett, a kick with his hooting voice and doddering bonhomie).
Pappas ensures Wilde’s bon mots are crisply, smartly delivered. The production values, including the ladies’ scrumptious costumes designed by Melanie Burgess, are top-drawer. And as in his “Earnest” for Intiman Theatre, in 1994, Pappas draws hearty laughs from effete humor, while maintaining British restraint.
What is not evident here is the author’s deeper critique of a society entrenched in artifice, calculation and masquerade. (Wilde’s own inability to sustain a charade of heterosexuality got him jailed and ostracized in England, soon after “Earnest’s” successful debut.)
Do the masks of unflappable mirth worn by Jack and his ilk hide un-earnest, perhaps taboo, identities? Some modern interpretations of “Earnest” raise that undercurrent to the play’s surface. That it lies below the surface here doesn’t diminish the pleasures of SSC’s impeccable production. It just means you may want to dig deeper yourself.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org