“The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” In Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” now playing at Arena Stage, the follies of romance are the essence of comedy. In this delightful play, two upper-class friends, John Worthing and Alergnon Moncrieff, both adopt the name Ernest to woo the ladies they fancy, Gwendolen and Cecily. Hijinks ensue as Wilde pokes fun at aristocrats, men’s immature playfulness, and women’s fickle shallowness.
As always, Arena has set its stage beautifully. The authentic interior scenes represent the luxury of 19th-century London, complete with ornate wooden furniture, rich upholstery, and delicate tea sets. Giant metal sunflowers framing the stage seem out of place but make sense when the scene switches to a country rose garden, with winding brick paths and chirping birds.
Adding to this authenticity are the actors’ British accents. But while Ian Kahn (Algie)’s and Susan Lynskey (Gwendolen)’s are impeccable, Michael Skinner (Worthing)’s and Tymberlee Chanel (Cecile)’s falter on certain words. Fortunately, these slight errors do not distract from the action of the play, which is hilarious. John lives in the country with his ward, Cecily, but craves the bustle of the city. To escape his responsibilities, he has dreamt up a wayward brother, Ernest, as an excuse to venture into London. This seems like a smooth move, but Worthing’s strategy falters when he actually presents himself as Ernest to his companions, including Gwendolyn, to whom he proposes. Algie is shocked to learn the truth because John is “the most Ernest-looking person I have ever seen in my life.” Algie’s boyish enthusiasm for Ernest’s deceit is infectious, and his pride in his friend’s exploits is understandable because he too has created an imaginary figure to help in his playboy endeavors. It is Algie’s belief that “the only way to treat a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty and to someone else if she is plain.”
Algie lays these habits to rest when he pursues Cecily, whom he immediately loves. The catch is, he is also masquerading as John’s fictional brother, Ernest Worthing, and when Gwendolen shows up in the country, explanations must be made. This would be simple enough, but both lovely ladies have always dreamt of marrying a man named Ernest (it gives Gwendolen shivers) and will not be satisfied with a man of any other name. Also complicating matters is Gwendolyn’s stubbornly snooty mother, Lady Bracknell, who is slow to approve either match.
Lady Bracknell is a hoot, as is the servant who always enters the room with a cough. Easily the best scene in the play is when Gwendolyn and Cecily, fast friends who become even faster rivals, sit down to tea. Wilde’s script is peppered with sharp-witted one-liners, but some of them unfortunately get lost in this production. Actors in Arena’s theater-in-the-round usually do an admirable job compensating for such a difficult performance space, but Algernon and Lady Bracknell do not seem to understand the importance of projecting, and some of their lines are delivered to only one half of the audience. Director Everett Quinton should have addressed this problem, but he otherwise does a fine job bringing the play to life, and “The Importance of Being Earnest” is still a thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience. Wilde creatively explores questions of identity and romance while teaching his captive audience the importance of being earnest.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is playing at Arena Stage, off the Green Line’s Waterfront-SEU Metro station, through Dec. 26. College Night is Thurs., Dec. 2, at 8 p.m., when tickets are $10. For more show times and ticket prices, see www.arenastage.org.