For a play so interested in the parameters of boredom endured by English high society, Silver Spring Stage’s rollicking production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is anything but tedious. While the canonical source material assuredly promises baseline delights, director Bill Hurlbut’s rendition is breezily elevated by an exceptional cast, an in-sync, straggler-free ensemble that indulges even its most minor characters in the frisky repartees of Wilde’s script.
Algernon Moncrieff (Nicholas Temple) and Ernest Worthing (Noah Rich) are two aristocratic bachelor-bros with little to do but busy themselves with smoking (a gentleman must have an occupation!) and romance. While Algernon, or Algie, dismisses marriage as anti-climactic, extolling the pleasures of uncertainty – “the chase” as it were – as the heart and soul of romance, the relatively staid Ernest has other ideas. Enraptured by Algie’s fashionable cousin, a Miss Gwendoline Fairfax (Emma Wesslund), Ernest takes the first opportunity to propose to the equally smitten, but more experienced, and vixenish young woman. With Algie’s assistance in luring away the meddlesome aunt Lady Bracknell (Susan Holliday), Ernest and Gwendoline agree to marry. Gwendoline is delighted at the prospect of marrying an “Ernest,” a name she finds absolutely fetching, and an inexplicable, but large part of why she finds herself so drawn to her newly betrothed.
The kick is that Ernest isn’t Ernest at all, but the disappointingly pedestrian “Jack.” Though today a man of means, with investments aplenty, a lavish country property, and a pretty teenage ward by the name of Cecily Cardew (Camille Pozderac), Jack’s family history is absent, an inelegance considered unacceptable by Lady Bracknell. Thus ensues the lovesick Jack’s mad scramble to erase the double identities he’s fashioned for himself and to prove his eligibility. Meanwhile, the swarmy, pastel-clad Algie entangles himself in the deception by appearing one afternoon at Worthing’s estate, where he introduces himself as Jack’s rakish city-dwelling brother, Ernest. An infatuation swiftly materializes between him and young Cecily, who has also long fantasized of uniting herself with an “Ernest.”
As the “ostentatiously eligible” Algie, Temple plays his vivacious dandy with the loveable scoundrel appeal of a Hugh Grant-type. His relationship with Jack is self-serving but chummy, while Jack’s (well-hidden) affections for Algie occasionally peaks through his normally glaring, irritated autopilot. A highlight for the two men is a sublimated muffin dispute the equivalent of a scratching match. Beyond quite convincingly looking the part of the upright aristocrat with a molten soft spot for romance, Rich brings to his role a subtle comic panache. Of note is his repeated use of the word “absurd,” nearly wet in its haughty delivery. Wesslund as Fairfax is a (welcome) caricature with her high-society drawl and nose permanently upright as she strides cat-like around the stage in her bejeweled headbands, shifty dresses, and long silken scarves. All that’s missing is a vintage cigarette holder to complete the look. While Gwendoline’s were my personal favorite costumes of the night, costume designer Linda Swann does lovely work in all her creations – sheer, lacey gowns, ascots, and three-piece suits galore.
So much of Earnest’s charm rests in its language, filled with playful bon mots, nonsequiturs, and subverted maxims that underscore the frivolities of its privileged class. Success consequently relies on a well-orchestrated cast, able to keep in step with the quick banter and comic timing required of Wilde’s dialogue. The Silver Spring Stage ensemble here succeeds in this not-so-simple feat: Tom Schiller gives a giggle-inducing performance as both the country and city butler struggling to keep up with his masters’ demands, while Karen Fleming and Stephen Johnson (handmaiden cum teacher type to Cecily, Laetitia Prism, and country reverend, Canon Chasuble, respectively) are amusing as they fail horribly at hiding their unsanctioned sexual tryst. With such a satisfying cast it would seem difficult to stand out; somehow Camille Pozderac, who plays Cecily, prevails. Expertly moving back and forth from calculated sass to vulnerability and distress, it’s a pleasure to be sucked in by Pozderac’s shifty-eyed Cecily. Her second-act back and forth with Gwendoline, which goes from superficially amicable to the two ladies flinging coded curses at one another is, while not the narrative climax, certainly the dramatic one thanks to the two capable actresses. I suspect we’ll be seeing much more of Pozderac in the DC area theater scene, according to this performance at least.
In terms of set design (Maggie Modig) and lighting (Don Slater), the Stage’s rendition of Earnest is serviceable but thoroughly conventional and uninterested in innovation. I’ve seen a few productions at this venue in the past year; however, Earnest is the first to include more than one setting (in fact, three!). Silver Spring Stage has a scrappy spirit, and you’ll see the actors emerge during the intermissions to dis- and reassemble the set pieces. No matter. This homegrown production of Wilde’s frolicking satire is worth the price of admission thanks to a thoroughly enchanting cast.
Running Time: Two Hours and 20 Minutes, including two intermissions.