KPBS AIRDATE: November 4, 1992
This is as Wilde as it gets — Oscar Wilde, that is. “The Importance of Being Earnest” has been hailed as a comic masterpiece, a brilliant slice of satire on the upper classes, who richly deserve all the skewering they get — both today, and in 1895 when the play was written. Unfortunately, its author was also skewered. The colorful, eccentric Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality and served two years of hard labor, after which he was physically, spiritually and financially ruined, and died in 1900, in bitterness and despair.
That despair is nowhere to be found in his still-hilarious play. Same for the artistic choice and delicious abandon of the Blackfriars production, despite its desperate financial straits.
As Blackfriars struggles for survival, its artistic director has chosen to scale back operations, and change direction by using a core company of familiar and skilled designers and actors. In the worst of times, Ralph Elias directs a classic comedy; apparently, there’s enough drama in the business office.
In many ways, “Earnest” is dated and silly. But its wit and witticisms are impeccably timeless. There’s a never-ending string of one-liners on all aspects of life and society.
Try some of these on for size: “Divorces are made in heaven.” “Over half of modern culture is dependent on what one shouldn’t read.” “In married life, three is company and two is none.” “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”
Ralph Elias gets a good number of the good lines as the bemused, amoral Algernon; Elias looks young and adorable, and, as both actor and director, he seems to be having the time of his life. His wife, Allison Brennan, plays Lady Bracknell, Algernon’s aunt, who is variously described as a monster and a gorgon. Brennan has acquired the chins of Robert Morley and the speech patterns of Margaret Thatcher. She’s a hoot.
The rest of the cast completes the treat. Philip Charles Sneed as the prissy Jack Worthing, a man who, having lost two parents, is accused of being careless. Erin Kelly, back from Off-Broadway, bringing a seething sexuality to Gwendolyn, Algernon’s cousin who wouldn’t dream of marrying anyone who wasn’t named Ernest. And Marti Jo Pennisi is a delightful young Cecily, who daringly turns cartwheels, but fears that she looks “quite plain” after her German lesson. Ron Choularton is wonderful as a deadpan butler and a mutton-chopped reverend. Rebecca Nachison somehow makes the priggish Miss Prism look like Mortimer Snerd.
The costumes are gorgeous and the overall design work is super, although this is the first time a Blackfriars low-budget set really looked low-budget. But it’s a very fine production, an inspired ensemble, and another shot in the arm for a company that deserves a long and healthy life.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.