The premiere of Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest” on Feb. 14, 1895 marked the beginning of the playwright and novelist’s downfall. The father of Lord Alfred Douglas had discovered his son’s affair with Wilde, and attempted to attend the premiere of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which was initially a huge success, reportedly in order to throw a bouquet of rotten vegetables on the stage. He left a calling card at Wilde’s club a few days later with the inscription “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].” Douglas persuaded Wilde to file a claim for libel against his father, but the claim backfired, and ended with Wilde getting arrested for sodomy and “gross indecency.” He served a sentence of two years of hard labor and died in a hotel in Paris a few years later, depressed and in poverty.
But there’s little hint of what’s to come for Wilde in the borderline-ridiculous “Earnest,” which skewers Victorian society and the institution of marriage—but its critical eye is tempered by laughable characters and witty dialogue, both of which still appeal to modern audiences. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s current production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” attempts to ramp up the campy qualities of the play, with mixed results.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” follows two friends, Algernon (played by Joe Brack) and “Ernest” (Travis Hudson), though it quickly comes out that Ernest’s real name is Jack; the moniker Ernest is one that he takes on whenever he leaves the countryside, where he’s charged with the care of a pretty young ward named Cecily (Lizzi Albert), to go cavort in town and flirt with the beautiful Gwendolen (Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly), with whom he’s desperately in love. Algernon is immediately delighted by this discovery of a double life, as he has his own duplicitous device of an imaginary invalid friend to use an excuse to get out of engagements. Algernon is the more boisterous of the pair, and Brack plays up Algernon’s ridiculousness to great effect: He bounces up and down on a chaise with glee, he skips across the stage, he makes faces when his monstrous aunt, Lady Bracknell, isn’t looking. Balancing him out is Jack, who isn’t the straight man to his comedy partner so much as a subtler, more indignant shade of ridiculous. Hudson takes a few minutes to get into his portrayal of Jack, but he hits his mark when Gwendolen appears and he, with shaking hands and eyes oozing terrified affection, proposes to her.
She accepts his proposal, but there’s a hitch: She says that she couldn’t love a man whose name wasn’t Ernest, and Lady Bracknell, who is Gwendolen’s mother, refuses to allow the engagement. Jack bemoans to Algernon, “I don’t really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one. In any case, she is a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair.” But Lesley Malin’s portrayal of Lady Bracknell doesn’t live up to this characterization—she never embodies the kind of intimidating matriarch that would warrant such a reaction. Instead, she comes across as a shrill relative with a slightly annoying tendency toward monologue.
The love interests, too, never quite reach the bar that Brack and Hudson set. When Algernon poses as Jack’s “wicked brother Ernest” out in the country to woo the lovely young Cecily, Albert can’t match Brack’s energy, even as Cecily girlishly recounts to “Ernest” her diary entries that detail the tumultuous history she has imagined up for their love affair. And when Gwendolen and Cecily meet, first thinking they’re rivals for “Ernest” and later indignant and distraught after discovering that neither of their love interests are, in fact, named Ernest, the actresses don’t quite have the chemistry to keep the energy up, and you end up feeling as though you’re just biding time for Jack and Algernon to come back on stage.
Director Erin Bone Steele’s decision to occasionally break the fourth wall helps to enhance the humor: When Algernon declares, “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty,” he pauses to make eye contact and wink seductively at someone in the audience before concluding, “and to someone else, if she is plain.” And halfway through the second act, as Jack sputters indignantly after discovering Algernon posing as Ernest at his country home, he’s interrupted by his butler with a message and reads it aloud: “Intermission!”
And despite any less-than-stellar performances, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is always a comedic hit, thanks to Wilde’s skill at writing hilarious dialogue. Quip after quip had the audience laughing throughout, and even though there are some fast-paced witticisms skewering marriage and societal obligations in the Victorian era, the humor is still accessible for all ages—on opening night, a girl who looked to be about 10 years old was sitting in the front row and howling with laughter.