The new musical, “Being Earnest”, based on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”, perhaps one of the wittiest plays in the English language, is presented by Tony Award nominee Paul Gordon and Emmy nominee Jay Gruska, at the nationally acclaimed TheatreWorks. Musical direction is by William Liberatore. It is TheatreWorks artistic director, Robert Kelley’s stagings and scenic designer Joe Ragey’s sets, that help transport the story to London’s Carnaby Street and the country estate of Mr. Worthing, and steal the show. If, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing”, this play is both sincere to Wilde’s clever critique of the hypocrisies of the society in which Wilde lived and stylish in its presentation. “Being Earnest” has costumes designed by Fumiko Bielefeldt, lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound design Jeffrey Mockus. The play is reset to 1965.
The play opens with Algernon Moncrieff receiving his friend, Jack Worthing, superbly (played by Euan Morton and Hayden Tee respectively), at Moncrieff’s London home. Gordon and Gruska have done a fantastic job in muscalizing the classic, with superb lyrics. Jack has created an alter-ego, Ernest, to escape the drudgery of his conservative lifestyle, in the country. He has fun in London, as Ernest, and explains away his frequent absences, to his ward in the country, by saying that he has to visit his wayward brother, Ernest. In London, Jack falls in love with Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (played by Mindy Lym) who readily accepts him, claiming, “my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.” Upon hearing of the secret engagement of her daughter to Jack Worthing, Lady Bracknell (superbly played by Maureen McVerry) interviews Jack and finds him unsuitable when he reveals that he is an orphan and was found in a handbag by a charitable gentleman, who raised him. Lady Bracknell says, “To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it have handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life”.
At Jack Worthing’s country home, Ms. Prism (played by Diana Torres Koss) is in charge of Jack’s ward Cecily Cardew (played by Riley Krull). Algernon wishing to pursue Jack’s “beautiful” ward, unbeknownst to Jack, arrives his country home, claiming to be his younger brother, Ernest. Cecily has always been intrigued by the wickedness of “Ernest”, and when Algernon tries to explain that he is not wicked, she says, “If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy”. Algernon professes his love for her and inquires whether she would still love him, if his name were not Ernest. She says, “I might respect you, Ernest, I might admire your character, but I fear that I should not be able to give you my undivided attention.” While the script has been pared down to include the songs, it retains some of the most witty original dialogues. Now there are two love stricken men looking to get rechristened by the rector, Dr. Chasuble (played by Brian Herndon). Meanwhile, Lady Bracknell considers the social possibilities of two pending marriages. To Algernon, unconcerned about society, she says, “Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.”
This is a beautiful, must-see rendition of Wilde’s lampooning of the shallow social mores of Victorian society. It is full of superb lyrics and famous dialogues, gorgeous scenes and amazing acting. The young lovers, beautifully play the roles of flippant characters, lacking depth, and deliver Wilde’s witty and sparkling lines, with aplomb. In the end, ironically, Lady Bracknell, most shallow character of all, and keeper of traditions, reflects upon Mr. Worthing’s obsession with the name Ernest, for the sake of his love “My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.” “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta,” he replies, “I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest.”
If I were to watch only one play this season, I would select this one. “Being Earnest” is currently playing at TheatreWorks www.theatreworks.org in Mountain View.