Whenever surveys are taken, asking theaters to name their most popular plays, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest always comes out on top as the most popular non-modern comedy.
And with good reason.
In a time when every aspect of life has been politicized and polarized; when “cutting edge” drama has left the average theater-goer scarred, bloody, and gun-shy; when too many “performances” turn out to be angry rallies for the like-minded , Wilde’s old play is, like the television series, Seinfeld, blissfully about “nothing”
Nothing but wit, that is.
Wit is eloquence of language. And critic Eric Bentley maintained that “no one, it seems, can do without eloquence: it is as indispensable as it is irresistible.” Oscar Wilde was the master of stage wit and The Importance of Being Earnest is the best of the master.
Mr. Bentley goes on to note that the “arts are compensatory…For the bad talk of everyday, the drama provides good talk to astonish and delight….The primary pleasure of dramatic dialogue [is] the pleasure of perfect articulateness….[A] piece of good dialogue is always of itself a source of delight and comes with a shock of surprise.” 1
Shaw Chicago’s The Importance of Being Earnest is almost three hours of perfect articulateness and delight.
And the play is about nothing more weighty than the complications of having, or lacking, the name “Earnest.”
Jack Worthing (Christian Gray) is the picture of the sincere man of integrity, seeking little more than to lead a life of moral purpose in a world of people seeming hell-bent on stopping him. The woman he loves, Gwendolen Fairfax (Lydia Berger Gray) is about as tightly wound as one could get without snapping apart. Her mother, Lady Bracknell (Mary Michell) knows how everyone should behave at all times, and has taken it upon herself to ensure that they do. She finds Mr. Worthing, unworthy of her daughter’s hand because he has no parentage to speak of save a handbag. He does have a young ward, however, living in the country – Cecily Cardew (Leslie Ann Handelman). Cecily is as free-spirited as Gwendolyn is tense. Meanwhile, Jack’s best friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Gary Alexander), fascinated to learn of Gwendolyn’s existence, determines to meet her behind Jack’s back.
What ensures is, fortunately, little more than what the subtitle promises – nothing but “a trivial comedy for serious people.”
The Shaw Chicago production gives the old comedic war horse a freshness through both the imaginative casting by director Robert Scogin and Mr. Scogin’s precise choreography of the uniformly talented cast’s verbal pyrotechnics.
Lydia Berger Gray, though looking like Anjelica Huston, seems to be channeling a lemon in her hilarious conception of Gwendolyn. The combination is breath-takingly funny. As her beau, Jack Worthing, Christian Gray plays the hero with at least fifty shades of exasperation. He turns in a stunning performance with an ease which belies his great achievement. Leslie Ann Handelman’s Cecily Cardew is no naïve country lass, no indeed. This woman is kin to Maureen O’Hara’s lusty Mary Kate Danaher in John Ford’s The Quiet Man. This unexpected interpretation works wonders in animating the action in fresh ways. Gary Alexander, a terrific actor usually seen at Shaw Chicago as a quirky eccentric, is given a chance to assay a “normal” fellow. Alexander’s Algernon is a bored cynic, passing his time gossiping and messing around in other people’s lives, until he meets the Cecily of Ms. Handelman. She woos him out of his cynicism and into the first love of his life. His transformation is one of the production’s magical moments. Lastly, we come to the Lady Bracknell of Mary Michell. Actresses have played Lady Bracknell as everything from a monster to a man in drag. Looking like the late great Marian Lorne, but playing, not with Lorne’s characteristic dithering, but with a steel resolution firm enough to momentarily convince the audience to accept her outrageous perceptions and analyses. The performance allows Ms. Michell to claim the final piece of her winning trifecta for Shaw Chicago — Mrs. Whitfield in Man and Superman, Dona Ana in Don Juan in Hell, and now Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.
When the critic Norman Cousins was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, an incurable and fatal spinal column illness, he left the hospital and closeted himself with humorous books and movies. Every time he laughed, his pain eased. After a few months, his doctors could find no trace of the disease. Cousins and his doctors believed that laughter cured him.
As Chicago’s winter influenzas linger, you should prescribe yourself an evening at Shaw Chicago’s Importance of Being Earnest. When you are not laughing, you will find yourself grinning very loudly. And you will certainly leave the theater feeling better than when you entered.
1 Bentley, Eric. The Life of the Drama. New York: Atheum, 1972.
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