Oscar Wilde was a brilliant writer, poet and raconteur, who would have loved the times we’re in. They would inspire him as his own Victorian England inspired some of his greatest works. “The Importance of Being Earnest,” now at Two River Theater, in Red Bank, New Jersey, is one of these enduring delights.
Fans of dazzling, razor sharp word play will find much to love in this classic tale. The Victorians were very proud of their relative places in the pantheon of society and this play becomes a bit of a history lesson for some. Dig just a little beneath the flowery language, however, and you will find the current mode of society is also well represented. Times change, people really do not.
From the very beginning, we meet Algernon Moncrieff (Sam Lilja)–a bit of a flake and a loafer and representative of his class. There are brilliant early interactions between Algernon and his butler Lane (Henry Vick) that are like Japanese brush paintings, limning a great deal with just a few strokes. Soon John Worthing (Federico Rodriguez), known as “Earnest” in town, arrives to declare his love for Algernon’s cousin and his intent to seek her hand. For these brothers of choice, this is happy news, yet when first we practice to deceive it is often the spider who gets tangled in his own web.
When Lady Bracknell (Randy Danson) and her beautiful daughter Lady Gwendolyn Fairfax arrive, it is clear why John is so smitten–she is the perfect female of her time. Lady Bracknell is the perfect dowager of hers and the merriment ensues. Algernon’s curiosity about John’s young ward Cecily Cardew (Liesel Allen Yeager) causes him to consider being Earnest–quite literally, whom John has personified as a younger brother, even though Earnest is *his* doppelganger, as unlike the Internet, there is a great distance between the “town” of London and the “country” of Woolton. There are different social sets, so John’s subterfuge has been successful–but that’s about to change.
Stirring the pot in the country are Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Mahira Kakkar) and the local parson Reverend Chasuble (Chris Kipiniak), who mostly have eyes for one another, and Merriman (Bob Mackenzie) the long suffering butler at John’s country estate. These characters’ banter is razor sharp–listen well and be rewarded with amusements that last far beyond the present moment. These are the Access Hollywood stories of their times and the twists and turns of the chase upon which Wilde takes us were not invented by cinema. Plays of Wilde’s ilk in the hands of players like these are few and far between. Vick and Mackenzie could not be different as butlers, yet both have the same suffering and show us in very subtle, very personal ways. Some of my favorite moments are with Cecily and Gwendolyn in the garden, where their devotion to one another warms and cools as quickly as the sun chases the clouds, hides and returns. But by far my most favorite is Lady Bracknell. Whenever the dour dowager is on stage, it is nearly impossible to look at anyone else. And when another character speaks, you look for her reaction. Danson gives us a sharp General in the army of high Society and you can see why Lady Bracknell would always prevail.
Don’t go on my word alone, but make sure you experience this delightful play for yourself. The play runs through December 3 only, so be sure to get those holiday gifts now by visiting www.tworivertheater.org
. Go Wilde!