Oscar Wilde is almost synonymous with witticism. Bon mots roll off the tongues of his characters with languid ease. His drawing room comedies seem to take place in upper-class English society but are, in fact, set in a funhouse mirror version like Gilbert and Sullivan's Japan.
The Importance of Being Earnest, getting a buoyant production by Skin Horse Theater, remains fresh and hilarious a century after its London premiere. I expected the outpouring of wit, but I had forgotten the strong dramatic content of the play. There is no serious conflict, but there is a great deal of dramatic comedy. At times, Earnest borders on farce and director Garrett Prejean keeps the staging focused and fast.
The play starts with Algernon Moncrieff (Brian Fabry Dorsam) lounging at home while awaiting the arrival of his formidable aunt, Lady Bracknell (Lynae LeBlanc), and her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax (Veronica Hunsinger-Loe). At his orders, his butler Lane (Samuel Moodey) has prepared cucumber sandwiches for them, but Algernon gobbles them thoughtlessly. Algernon is an amoral dandy who has invented an imaginary invalid friend named Bunbury, whose needs serve as an excuse when Algernon wants to traipse around the countryside indulging in romances.
Algernon's buddy Jack Worthing (Nathaniel Kusinitz) enters and is delighted to learn Gwendolen is coming, because he's madly in love with her. Farcical elements seep into the story as Algernon discovers that Jack has a pretty 17-year-old ward in the country. Jack also has invented a second identity: a decadent brother named Ernest. This ruse gives allows him to do whatever he pleases in London.
Wilde piles comic climax on comic climax. It would be impossible to lay out all the plot twists or quote all the epigrams, but both pour out in delightful torrents. Jack (beloved as Ernest by Gwen — who is enraptured with that name) proposes and she accepts. When he's grilled by the snobbish Lady Bracknell, he confesses a fatal flaw: He has lost both his parents. Actually, they lost him. He was found as a baby in a handbag in a cloakroom at Victoria Station. The scandalized Lady Bracknell storms off with her daughter in tow.
Next we're off to Jack's country estate, where we meet his ward Cecily Cardew (Lucy Faust) and her tutor Miss Prism (Becca Chapman). Algernon arrives, pretending to be Jack's brother Ernest, to flirt with his friend's ward. The romance goes well, partly because Cecily has always been allured by her guardian's depraved brother Ernest.
Jack arrives unexpectedly to announce the death of his brother, whom he has decided to get rid of. Unfortunately, his brother (in the person of Algernon) is already there. To make matters worse, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrive. Two romances have crashed on the reef of a name.
There are still more surprises, and they warrant the trip to see this classic live on stage. — Dalt Wonk