Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was a radical aesthete and completely obsessed with surfaces. It's his indulgent (and totally unironic) voice ringing out in The Picture of Dorian Grey, declaring the complete uselessness of art. It's sometimes helpful to remember that much of the wicked wit's finest work was intended to be digested as art for art's sake and to revel in the comic craftsmanship.
The Importance of Being Earnest is so obstinately unimportant, it's utterly meaningless: a bad pun wrapped up in an absurd sex farce artfully doodled over two symmetrical hours. It's a nouveau puzzle box that revels as much in the perversity of its own cucumber-sandwich-eating decadence as it does in the cognitive dissonance of Victorian morality. It's an enduring hymn to hypocrisy and grotesque seriousness, and Germantown Community Theatre has done it up like a proper English tea — with lots of lumps and cake.
Director John Rone and set designer/actor Bill Short have created a versatile space filled with glass buddhas, exotic masks from far-off lands, and a big squiggly painting that may or may not look exactly like a mighty scrotum. It's a visual feast of high-toned whimsy that uses small gestures to make the most out of GCT's matchbox stage.
"Ignorance is a delicate, exotic fruit," says Wilde's practically perfect ingenue Gwendolyn Fairfax (sounding for all the world like a foreign correspondent for Fox News). Gwen lives in the city but detests crowded places and wishes to marry Jack Worthing mainly because she thinks his name is Ernest, though it isn't (but it is). "Touch it and the bloom is gone," she says, in praise of her beautifully undefiled (ahem!) mind. Mary Buchignani, a rock-solid comedian who almost never fails to satisfy, delivers these iconic lines like they were newly minted and just for her. Her nearly sociopathic moral flexibility and reflexive preening makes her the perfect foil for Laurence Goodwin's brassy soubrette take on Cecily Cardew, the earthy and iconoclastic country heiress who is in love with the wickedly witty Algernon because she thinks he's bad (which is true) and because she thinks he's Ernest (which isn't).
It's been suggested that Lady Bracknell's response, upon discovering that Jack Worthing was a foundling discovered in a handbag in Victoria Station, is the most diversely interpreted snatch of dialog in the history of the English-speaking stage. Veteran actor and director Jo Malin returns to the stage after a long absence to put her stamp on Wilde's famous gorgon. "You can hardly imagine that I would dream of allowing a girl brought up with the utmost care to marry into a cloakroom," she asks with cool, ironic bewilderment. "To form an alliance with a parcel?" Very nearly perfect.
Jason M. Spitzer and Julie Reinbold turn in textbook performances as the Reverend Dr. Chasuble (a randy cleric) and Miss Prism (the no-less-randy governess). Justin Willingham charms as the irascible Algernon. Only Tripp Hurst, weighted down by a British accent he can't quite get control over, fails to make the most of Wilde's deliciously sly banter.
Rone has turned in a smart, vibrant, often snappy, and always stylish production of a certifiable classic, finding lots of new laughter along the way. The cast, with noted exceptions, is very nearly perfect. The director's command of the material is as obvious as it is impressive, and his choreographed set changes are nearly as much fun to watch as the scenes. And yet, in spite of all this, everything stalls in the second act. Just as the farce starts to unwind, this Earnest starts to run out of steam without ever completely running out of charm.
The logical inversions that Wilde employs may be clever to the last, but they aren't completely unpredictable. It doesn't help that his barbs have set the standard for jokes about marriage for the last century. If the actors don't maintain a brisk pace, all the verbal gymnastics can seem ridiculously ornamental and cumbersome. Considering that the play's big final punch line is so deliberately bad ("I've now realized ... the vital importance of being earnest"), speed may sometimes be preferable to more obvious virtues.
At Germantown Community Theatre through October 21st