— Ryan Beil and Charlie Gallant in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Emily Cooper.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
One of the exquisite ironies of Oscar Wilde’s most famous comedy is both the absolute truth and complete falsehood of its punning title. True, young Gwendolyn and Cecily have decided that they can only love men named Ernest. So it is terribly important that both Jack and Algernon are being Ernest—at least pretending to be.
At the same time, among the least important things in Oscar’s Wilde Wilde world are sincerity and gravity, those dull, solid virtues the Victorians invested in the notion of earnestness. Wilde’s play celebrates the unimportance of being earnest in favour of triviality and wit.
Yet style for Wilde, the ultimate virtue, requires a veneer of earnestness (surface for Wilde was much more important than depth)—a straight-faced, unflappable treatment of the ridiculous as normal. Consider snooty Lady Bracknell’s reply when she asks potential son-in-law Jack about his parents and he tells her he lost them both: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
Wilde’s comedy is a delicate artifice, an already-gilded lily. Actors and directors embroider it further at their peril. Which brings me to the virtues and vices of David Mackay’s Arts Club production.
Chief among its virtues is Ryan Beil as Jack. An enormously clever comic actor, Beil combines deadpan Wildean delivery with very funny asides to the audience, sometimes just a quick remark under his breath, sometimes a knowing shrug. A close second is Deborah Williams’ growling, pursed-lipped Miss Prism, Cecily’s moralistic tutor, who looks as if she’s sucking a particularly sour lemon, even when flirting with the gaseous Rev. Chasuble (Simon Bradbury).
Less successful is Charlie Gallant’s self-satisfied Algernon. Gallant pushes a little too hard and loses some of the comedy, as does Allan Gray as a pair of doddering old servants. Splendidly attired in Nancy Bryant’s glorious hats and gowns, Allan Zinyk actually underplays Lady Bracknell (a role these days almost always cross-gendered). Ella Simon’s Cecily and Amber Lewis’ Gwendolyn also look great, the latter like something atop a wedding cake.
Mackay provides some excellent comic business, including a series of funny muffin gags for Algy and Jack. But an appended prologue and the melodrama-style music cues that punctuate the action seem heavy-handed and unnecessary.
Amir Ofek’s expressionistic sets, by contrast, gild the lily beautifully. Algernon’s drawing room is furnished with a giant top hat, a giant hand mirror and a staircase coming up through the floor. Jack’s country estate unfolds like a lady’s fan, with a huge arch of painted roses and butterflies that Wilde would elegantly applaud.