Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde was a master of the comic quip. He was well known during his lifetime (1854-1900) for his notorious behavior, but today he's as much remembered for his witticisms as for his dramaturgy. With one exception: His classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest is for my money one of the wittiest plays ever written.
Wilde's script, in three perfect acts, offers some wonderful characters, clever plotting, memorable comic confrontations and, yes, lines you'll remember and quote: "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing," one character tells us.
In fact, in Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's current production of Earnest, just to be certain we know Wilde was a wag with a sharp tongue, each act opens with three actors holding gilt-edged frames citing one of his aphorisms: The play closes with one that's especially apropos. "If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out."
That's part of the comedy of this play: Algernon Moncrieff (Jeremy Dubin) and Jack Worthing (Giles Davies) have made a practice of deceiving others about nonexistent friends or relatives. Worthing claims to have a brother named Ernest, while Moncrieff has invented an invalid friend named Bunbury, who gives him cover when he wishes to go off on mildly scandalous adventures. Love lays them both low: Worthing is courting Moncrieff's cousin, witty and worldly Gwendolyn Fairfax (Kelly Mengelkoch), while Moncrieff puts the moves on Worthing's young ward, idealistic and romantic Cecily Cardew (Hayley Clark).
In the midst of all this is Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn's mother, described as "perfectly unbearable" and "a perfect Gorgon."
She's downright scary and more as portrayed by CSC company member Matt Johnson: Lady Bracknell is often played in drag, and Johnson, well over 6 feet tall, does this with singular comic effect.
Johnson has had a tendency in past productions to overdo roles, be they serious or comic. Here he strikes a perfect balance of dominance and absurdity. It might be the best performance he's offered on CSC's stage.
But this is a strong core cast, made into a coherent whole by director R. Chris Reeder, one of the actors who founded the Shakespeare troupe. He's been away for several years, running a theater in Wisconsin, with occasional return visits to Cincinnati to stage works. His production of Earnest shows a firm hand with comic timing and spirited actors: I suspect that Johnson's restraint is a result of Reeder's experience and control. He also evokes fine performances from Dubin, who plays Moncrieff with a twinkle of wit (his role is described as a man who "has nothing but looks everything") and Davies, whose Worthing has an air of exasperation and uncertainty that differs from the devious characters he often plays. Davies has a pliable body, and he uses it to comic physical effect throughout this production.
Reeder has encouraged physical comedy from some of the minor players, too, a choice that is distracting in the first act with three butlers performing choreographed routines that might be appropriate for Monty Python but which wear thin with too much repetition. Reeder should have applied a firmer hand, too, to several actors attempting Hertfordshire accents to make them sound more "countrified." American ears would not have known the difference, and these odd speech patterns and pronunciations do more to confuse than amuse.
Nonetheless, this production is a fine example of why Cincinnati benefits from having a year-round classical theater company. Lovely period costumes (Heidi Jo Schiemer) and an adaptable set (Will Turbyne) make this show a pleasure to watch. If classic comedy is your thing, you're likely to enjoy this production. Grade: B
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Dec. 31.