Comedy doesn’t always age well. Revisit, for argument’s sake, the “Austin Powers” trilogy, or pretty much anything starring Rob Schneider, to witness how quickly those scenarios that seemed so funny a few years ago can lose their charm. It’s that much more refreshing, consequently, to watch The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s 113-year-old sitcom of manners, and marvel at how it can appear so wrinkle-free, especially under the spirited execution of the Pearl Theatre Company.
Algernon Moncrieff, a London bachelor and unapologetic super-fop, so loathes the social obligations of Victorian high society that, in order to avoid them, he has conjured up an imaginary invalid friend — one who lives out in the sticks and, conveniently, requires care whenever Algernon wants to skip out on a particular invite. Algernon’s similarly feckless friend, Jack Worthing, actually does live out in the sticks. However, because he likes to make no-questions-asked trips into the city, Jack often pretends he’s visiting his ne’er-do-well brother, Ernest, who, like Algernon’s invalid friend, doesn’t actually exist. When Algernon discovers that Jack is the legal guardian of an 18-year-old ward named Cecily, he shows up unannounced at Jack’s country home, hoping to seduce the young naïf by passing himself off as Jack’s non-existent brother. Jack and Algernon’s respective charades begin to dissolve when Gwendolen — Jack’s fiancée and Algernon’s cousin — also arrives at the house, unintentionally threatening to expose the double lives of both men.
Armed with the sublime wit of its author, Earnest needs little doctoring to keep us entertained. Director J.R. Sullivan clearly understands this and wisely opts for a lean, fast-paced evening, one that leaves us wanting just a little bit more. This is not to call the show unsatisfying, mind you. A ticket on Mr. Sullivan’s Wilde Ride comes equipped with pitch-perfect performances by a cast of gifted comic actors, all of whom work brilliantly together. Indeed, many of the performers are regulars at the Pearl, and their comfort with each other is evident throughout. Sean McNall and Bradford Cover, as Algernon and Jack, exchange Wilde’s rapid-fire one-liners and love-hate jabs with brotherly aplomb. (Picture a 19th-century Niles and Frasier Crane, with both characters equally oblivious of their own pompous leanings.) Ali Ahn’s Cecily is a sweet confection of plucky naiveté, and Rachel Botchan, as the more experienced Gwendolen, wins our affections for her sometimes-shallow character.
Wilde fans are sure to be smitten by the Pearl Theatre’s take on this comic mainstay and all its youthful exuberance. I only wish we all could age as well as The Importance of Being Earnest. Despite the havoc this would wreak on the Botox industry, the world would be a much better-looking place in the end.
Originally published in Show Business Weekly, 2008