"It is such a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth," Jack Worthing says to Gwendolen Fairfax, whom he wishes to marry. "Can you forgive me?"
It's one of the many wickedly funny lines Oscar Wilde concocted to mock Victorian-era British society's stifling preference for propriety over honesty. In The Importance of being Earnest, currently running at New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, all the jokes are served with white gloves and silver platters. When prompted by his employer, Lane (Jason Carter) gamely agrees that his own lower class life as a butler is too boring and meaningless to merit contemplation.
While the socialites in the farce publicly adhere to suffocating mores and prejudices, Algernon Moncrieff (Patrick Bowen) and Jack (James Bartelle) confide in one another that they both find relief by engaging in deceit. They respectively invented a brother and friend who live elsewhere and serve as handy excuses to dodge people and parties they wish to avoid. Algernon even masks his fraud with a self-flattering claim of virtue and charity.
As the two men woo women they actually like, the ruses become harder to maintain — a comic device that makes the play timeless. Despite the stuffy Victorian setting, director Jessica Podewell keeps the play moving at a brisk pace and the humor is sharp.
The play opens with Algernon enjoying finger sandwiches in his well-appointed London home when Jack arrives. Algernon has deduced that Jack has kept secrets from him and wishes to know about a previously unacknowledged woman named Cecily Cardew (Julia DeLois). They're interrupted by the extremely proper and imposing Lady Bracknell (Clare Moncrief) and her daughter Gwendolen (Lyndsay Kimball). When it's revealed that Jack wishes to marry Gwendolen, Bracknell interrogates him, particularly about his family lineage, net worth and if he has chosen properties in the appropriate areas. Though Jack is perfectly engaging, his accounts seem deficient.
In the second act, the socialites separately make their way to Jack's country home to investigate further their separate interests. Algernon falls for Cecily, a young woman being tutored by Miss Prism (Tracey Collins), a woman who has committed the socially embarrassing act of writing a novel. The change of location leads to confusion about identities, particularly about who Ernest Worthing is, and the social fabric starts to unravel.
Bartelle stands out as the well-meaning Jack and has perfect comic timing for his many unwitting pronouncements. Bowen revels in Algernon's pomposity, and Moncrief is hilarious as the humorless social enforcer. Following Cymbeline, it's another well-polished and entertaining production from Tulane Shakespeare this summer. — WILL COVIELLO