Less Than Earnest
The historical quandary of SCR's latest
Situation comedies are, historically, live performances that introduce stock characters, throw a few complications their way, and then resolve everything happily, distracting an audience briefly and allowing them to walk away smiling, heads empty. Irish playwright Oscar Wilde's 1895 classic, The Importance of Being Earnest, may not have a studio laugh track, but it is in every other way the greatest sitcom ever written.
Wilde's stock anti-heroes are Jack Worthing, a thinly written sounding board for the playwright's aphorisms, and Algernon Moncrieff, a thinly veiled stand-in for the playwright. Jack and Algernon do nothing but lounge about and carouse, even going through the trouble of creating new names and double lives to allow them the freedom for their sexual escapades. While the debauchery is assumed to be with women, Algernon dubs the subterfuge "bunburying"—a fairly obvious euphemism that sounds awfully similar to "buggering." The two rogues meet the beautiful Cecily and Gwendolen and fall in love with them. As the foursome walk to the altar, the specter of the latent homo is replaced with the hetero, and all is good and right with the world.
One might initially think that the play is just an outsider's lampooning of British society: too many snobs with too much money grousing about the "lower orders" as they dole out nifty maxims and witticisms. What the classicists fail to remember is that Wilde was very much a part of that society, and he behaved in exactly the same smug, condescending behavior they seem to think he's critiquing.
It's not a parody. It's biography.
Like Algernon and Jack, Wilde was a class snob and a liar, obsessed with shallowness—hair-curling, expensive suits and keeping up appearances—all while living a double life as a married man, father and closet case nailing rent boys on the side.
He was at the height of his literary powers with Earnest when the angry father of a spoiled young aristocrat with whom he was sexually involved accused him (privately) of being a "Somdomite" (sic). Wilde rushed to defend himself, claiming libel, and that stupid, self-destructive move ended up putting him in prison for "gross indecency."
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Director Warner Shook's production of Earnest is workmanlike, bringing nothing new to the table, but his staging is never boring and hits all of the laughs. The male leads never seem to be listening to each other, with Michael Gotch's Algernon especially adept at delivering his epigrams directly to the audience when he's supposed to be talking with Jack (flat straight man Tommy Schrider).
The women steal the show here, with the brightest lines belonging to Kandis Chappell as the brittle, formidable Lady Bracknell. Christine Marie Brown's Gwendolen does a gut-bustingly funny comic turn as she goes from sweet to hateful in her scenes with Elise Hunt's Cecily, all light and innocence . . . until she's crossed.
Because Shook's production offers no interpretation or ideas besides Wilde's enthusiastic embrace of the shallow, it's difficult not to think about the repercussions that shallowness had on his career, family and the hundreds of gay men living in London at the time who became part of the post-trial witch-hunt. In fact, it hung over the play like a funeral shroud. Sitcom or not, I couldn't just shut my mind off and enjoy the experience—I knew what was going to happen after the curtain fell. And how was I supposed to laugh atthat?
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST AT SEGERSTROM STAGE, SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555; WWW.SCR.ORG. THURS.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 & 7:30 P.M.; TUES.-WED., 7:30 P.M. THROUGH MARCH 9. $28-$62.