By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Jim Schneider
Produced by Dead Writers Theatre Collective, Chicago
At the Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”
A year after their visually sumptuous production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, Dead Writers Theatre Collective returns to Oscar Wilde with their production of his most famous and final play, The Importance of Being Earnest. The company defines itself as adhering as closely as possible to the author’s intent, and their productions, which so far have tended to focus on either Wilde or Noël Coward, often showcase elaborate costumes and set pieces. But Earnest’s aesthetic is somewhat different from last year’s show, in that Dead Writers utilized a grant from The Saints to construct sets, designed by Eric Luchen, which resemble the miniatures in the toy theatres of Wilde’s day. The result takes some getting used to, but combined with the old-fashioned exaggerated style of acting, it produces a cohesive whole and an amusing production.
Young gentleman of leisure Algernon Moncrieff (Jack Dryden) is bored with society when he discovers evidence that his friend, the more uptight aristocrat Earnest Worthing (Sean Magill), is going by a fake name. Interested in the true story of the man who is about to marry his cousin, Gwendolyn Fairfax (Maeghan Looney), Algernon confronts him, and gets Earnest to admit that his name is really Jack. The purpose of his deception was to allow Jack to escape from the country estate where he has an eighteen-year-old ward and the oppressive expectation of moral behavior that comes with his responsibility. Algernon is merely amused, but his aunt and Gwendolyn’s mother, Lady Bracknell (Mary Anne Bowman), uncovers a bigger problem: Jack was a foundling with no known hereditary ancestors. That could be solved with an elopement, but then Gwendolyn reveals that she loves Jack only for what she believes to be his name, Earnest, and couldn’t possibly marry him if he was named something as vulgar as Jack. Algernon quickly sniffs out an opportunity, and uses his knowledge to pressure Jack to remain silent while he travels to Jack’s country home to seduce his ward.
By now, the story is well-known enough for Tom Stoppard to have combined it with a historical treatment of the Dada movement and the rise of Lenin in his play Travesties (and, on the other end of the spectrum of decorum, for Mark Ravenhill to have given it a gritty modern update in Handbag) while still expecting theatre-goers to follow along. However, Schneider’s production keeps it fresh, both through the afore-mentioned design choices and the character tics created by his endearing ensemble. Though Dryden’s Algernon is basically a harmless fellow who quickly finds the tables turned on him when he encounters Megan Delay’s Cecily, it is very plain in this production that he and Lady Bracknell are closely related. Though he scoffs at social standards as much as his aunt claims to honor them, both are fonts of scathing commentary on everyone they know and everything Victorian audiences held dear. And while Wilde is known as one of the greatest wits of any age, this production’s Fairfax-Moncrieff family shows that there is a difference between being witty and simply being a troll with an RP accent. Half the things either of them say seem meant only to make Jack upset, and Sean Magill’s Jack is so easily flustered, so defenseless, and so very earnest that no troll could resist him.
Schneider imbues his production with physical comedy which is almost as amusing as the dialogue. Wrestling which is carefully choreographed to avoid damaging the actors’ costumes looks a bit odd, but the sight of Algernon indignantly defending himself while stuffing his face with food (a very difficult thing to do without choking) is priceless. It’s a delight to discover that an old favorite like The Importance of Being Earnest still has life in it. Even secondary characters like Algernon’s repressed servant, Lane (Chris Bruzzini) have brilliant moments. A Lady Bracknell who affords herself the ghost of a smirk while tormenting Jack/Earnest ties together this light-hearted production, which is a nice tribute to Wilde’s sense of playfulness. And whatever one thinks of the novel, albeit occasionally intrusive, scenic concept, Patti Roeder’s costumes are a joy in themselves.
Playing at the Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago, 2936 N Southport, Chicago. Tickets are $40; to order, call 773-935-6860. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm through July 31. Running time is three hours with two intermissions.