By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Here we are in the middle of LGBTQIA+ Pride month and what better way to celebrate than taking in The Importance of Being Earnest, the gift bestowed to the world by the Great Gay Grandfather of us all Oscar Wilde.
Of course, it will always be a bittersweet celebration. In February of 1895 Wilde premiered this work which is considered by many, especially me, to be the greatest comedy ever written in the English language. But just a few short days after the West End opening in London, the Marquess of Queensbury, father of Lord Alfred Douglas (Wilde’s boyfriend at the time) left a homophobic note for Wilde at his club, putting into motion the legal action which would eventually land Wilde in prison for “gross indecencies” and his early death a few years later.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues through June 22. Little Lake Theatre, Canonsburg. 724/745-6300. www.littlelaketheatre.org
But, really, try not to think about that as you watch this champagne-in-literary-form pop, bubble and sparkle in front of you. Wilde’s script is the quintessential comedy of manners taking deadly, but brilliantly funny, aim at the hypocrisies of Victorian England.
Two men of fashionable society, Algernon and Jack, have invented fake personas they use when the rigid customs of the times prohibit them from having fun. Almost against their reason they fall for two young women, Gwendolyn and Cecily, and these infatuations force them, for the first time in their lives, to tell the truth.
Rarely, if ever, has the English language been so polished and poised and perfected than by Wilde in Earnest. And in the middle of all the dizzying, dazzling wordplay, Wilde also created perhaps the gold standard of comedy characters, Lady Bracknell, the dowager dragon of the British aristocracy. When informed that Jack, her daughter’s suitor, lost his parents before he was born, she utters the classic line: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.”
The daunting task for any theater company producing Earnest, as Little Lake Theatre is doing under the direction of Art DeConciliis, is just staying out of the way. The play works. As has been proven many, many times before the play works. If you are fortunate to find yourself in the position of presenting this show to an audience, you goal needs to be to get the show on stage in such a way that the playwright can talk directly to the audience without having to navigate around a director’s “artistic vision.”
I am delirious to report that DeConciliis and this company are smart enough to realize that Wilde figured it all out over a century ago and their chief task is allowing the script to do the work it’s been designed to do.
This is a brisk production with a certain jittery energy fueling the onstage antics. The first act, which truth be told is really just a series of bon mots, feels a bit wobbly, but when the plot and Wilde’s machinations kick in for act two the production is appropriately bright and breezy.
The great upside to a version as crisp and purposeful as this is that the audience forms an immediate connection with the story, the characters and their travails. One of the biggest delights to be had from this Little Lake production is experiencing the delight the audience has discovering the play. When, at the climax, Jack discovers that he is actually Algernon’s brother (oh sorry – should I have said “spoiler alert” for this 125-year-old play?) the audience applauded. What a testament to Wilde’s ability to amaze an audience a century later and a production smart enough to facilitate, without overshadowing, that amazement.
This thoroughly enjoyable cast is an undeniable pleasure to watch, congratulations to Terry Westwood, Connor McNelis, Stephen Ray, Ashley Harmon, Kathleen Regan, Mairead A. Roddy, Mary Meyer and Adam Wainwright. And I do want to make mention of DeConciliis’ clever use of Beatles music for pre- and intermission music.