The Importance of Being Earnest

At the Writers Nichols Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Glencoe – “The Importance of Being Earnest” is one of the great civilized pleasures of playgoing. For more than two hours, the spectator can luxuriate in Oscar Wilde’s repartee, witticisms, and extravagant plotting. It’s not an easy comedy to perform, requiring a director and actors comfortable with Wilde’s language and improbable narratives. The Writers Theatre is presenting “Earnest” until Christmas. It’s not a perfect production but it’s more than good enough to satisfy connoisseurs of this elegant confection.

It’s unnecessary to give a detailed account of the “Earnest” plot. It’s both too nonsensical and too complicated to summarize coherently without making the description longer than the play script. Let it suffice that the storyline involves friends Algernon Moncrief and John Worthing, two young upper class men about town in London, wooing two young ladies, Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew. One of the key characters (and one of the greatest in English-language comedy) is Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

The characters exist in a never-never land of late Victorian sophistication and urbanity. The time is the 1890’s and the locations are Algernon’s residence in London and Jack’s house in the country. There are three acts, the action shifting between town and country.

At the Writers Theatre revival, the play starts a little slowly, with Jack (Alex Goodrich) and Algernon (Steve Haggard) exchanging insults and eating  cucumber sandwiches in Algernon’s drawing room until Gwendolen (Jennifer Lattimore) and Lady Bracknell (Shannon Cochran) make their entrance. Jack and Gwendolen want to marry but Lady Bracknell disapproves, and her disapproval brooks no argument.

The play takes off in the second act, when the action moves to Jack’s country house. By this time a whole network of confusions and misunderstandings churn the plot. The production is upgraded immensely in the middle act by the appearance of Rebecca Hurd as Gwendolen. Hurd has a comic presence that lights up the stage. She is funny in her facial expressions, her dialogue delivery, and her gestures and body language–nothing forced or artificial. It’s a totally fetching, charming, and natural performance.

Lady Bracknell is traditionally played as a fearsome and intimidating elderly lady. Cochran is younger than the other Lady Bracknells I’ve seen, but her astringent and imperial persona remains dominant. Her dialogue is peppered with unexpected comic bits that no person in real life would utter, but in Lady Bracknell’s mouth they are as natural as they are humorous. She is a mannered character presented without mannerisms, a performance that helps float the entire production.

Alex Goodrich is masterful as Jack Worthy, whose romantic prospects with Gwendolen seem shattered by the fact that his first name is not Earnest. Goodrich is especially funny when Jack is put out, annoyed, angry, or perplexed, which is most of the time. Lattimore is excellent as Gwendolen, played with an edge. She is definitely Lady Bracknell’s daughter. Her second act verbal battles across the tea table with Hurd’s Cecily are a comic joy. Haggard stumbled a bit out of the gate on opening night but got stronger as the play progressed.

There are four minor roles. Miss Prism (Anita Chandwaney) is Cecily’s starchy governess who turns out to be the key figure in saving the day for the two young couples (a Wildean snipe at the melodramatic plots of the day). Aaron Todd Douglas is the mild- mannered country parson who diffidently woos Prism, a willing collaborator in their wannabe middle-aged romance. The scene-stealer of the night is Ross Lehman. He first enters as Lane, Algernon’s very proper butler. In the country, he is Merriman, Cecily’s butler who is in a perpetual state of hilarious inebriation.

  Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Wilde subtitled his play “a trivial play for serious people,” but there is nothing trivial about the delectable language and intricate plotting of the play. Wilde had more on his mind than making London playgoers laugh. The play is a satire on the British class system, the mercenary conventions of courtship and marriage among the upper classes, and a parody of British nobility and the clergy. Late in the play Lady Bracknell complains “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces,” not recognizing (or maybe she does) that the society in which she thrives defines superficiality.

The physical production is highlighted by Collette Pollard’s set designs, complemented by Scott Dickens’s properties to create a visual elegance that beautifully establishes the play’s leisure class atmosphere. The set is luminously bathed in bright light designed by John Culbert. Mara Blumenthal’s costume designs colorfully and stylishly capture the 19890’s look of the British wealthy class. Josh Schmidt designed the sound, primarily a series of off stage thunderclaps as Jack Worthing frantically throws books around as he searches his library for the volume that ultimately establish his given name as Earnest.

Michael Halberstam’s main responsibility as director is ensuring that his ensemble speaks its lines naturally and not like quotations and jokes. The characters say funny things but they have to talk and act like their problems are real, with no campiness or nudge-nudge-wink-wink tossing off of Wilde’s bon mots. The loudest laughs on opening night came as much from the humorous absurdity of the situations as from the brilliance of the dialogue. Wilde wrote other plays that featured his wit but they were limited by melodramatic storylines with the wit garnishing the action. In “Earnest” the language and action are in perfect balance.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” marked the climax of Wilde’s career just before a famous sex scandal ruined him. He died in disgrace at the age of only 44, five years after the play opened in 1895 to great acclaim. It’s painful to speculate on how many scintillating comedies he could have written if he had not been destroyed by his personal life. But he did leave us “The Importance of Being Earnest,” maybe the greatest comedy of its kind in the last 150 years. What we have missed we will never know. What survives is a masterpiece.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” runs through December 23 at the Writers Theatre Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m., with some Wednesday performances at 3 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit

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