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The Importance of Being Earnest

There are probably plays as funny, though I doubt there’s one funnier than Oscar Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people.” The jokes flow like ocean waves, in sets of three, with the third the capper. They contain, often in a single sentence, the set-up and the punch-line, as in: “the general was essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life”; or, “I never change, except in my affections.”

Sculpted in eloquent, epigrammatic prose, a line begins with a respectable, allegedly solemn subject. Wilde then flips it, like a verbal Dorian Gray, to its opposite. After a while, the trivial and the serious do a snake-dance. And “serious” laughter lambastes “earnest” Victorian society.

Brian Mackey, Linda Libby

Take away the majestic style and these are among the most biased, selfish people ever to inhabit a stage.

Cygnet Theatre’s opening had all the goods in place. Sean Fanning’s set worked wonders with a faded, cream-colored wall. Each act requires a major overhaul – from Algernon’s flat to a country garden, to a drawing room. Portions of the walls slid away, revealing bookcases, and slid back for antique rose patterns; the changes were almost instantaneous (the set does double duty, since Cygnet is running Earnest in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s Travesties; which makes Fanning’s work – same set, different emphases - doubly ingenious).

Shirley Pierson’s costumes would have fit right in at Half-Moon Street, or Woolton, when the play premiered in London, 1895.

There are no weak links in a cast. But two stand out. Linda Libby is a splendid Lady Bracknell. She’s so extreme, and extremely funny, including lapses into a foghorn-voice. It’s as if Lady B’s from another dimension or era.

Only Oscar Wilde could have imagined Bracknell, wrote Mary McCarthy, “partly, no doubt, because she could not imagine him.”

Jacque Wilke shines as Gwendolen, spinning like Wilde’s epigrams, from sunlight to an F5 tornado in a jiff.

Maybe it was just the opening, but the cast as a whole sped through the play as if late for dinner. The characters are quick-witted, true. But they are also – or at least pretend to be – aristocrats who move to the beat of a languid drummer. And who don’t shout. And are in constant competition to out-phrase each other. Problem solved if the actors cue down, a tad, and listen.

Earnest is running in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. The combination throws some useful light on the latter, since Stoppard based his play on an actual event: James Joyce staged Earnest in Zurich; and since the characters overlap by design: Henry Carr is Algernon, Tristan Tzara, Jack Worthing, etc.

Several influences went into the writing of Travesties (a full review on 10/9). One could be what Cecily (an enchanting Rachel Van Wormer) says about memory.

And it’s another Wilde set-up/punch-line.

Miss Prism (delightful Maggie Carney): “Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary we all carry about with us.”

Cecily: “Yes,” she says, anticipating the most current theories on the subject, “but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened.”

And we have a glimpse into the vanishing mind of Henry Carr, narrator of Travesties.

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