Review: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

The delight of duplicity and disguise has always been the comic propellant in Oscar Wilde's secretly subversive comedy, but this London import takes it to ridiculous extremes -- mostly to the good -- at ART.

The delight of duplicity and disguise has always been the comic propellant in Oscar Wilde’s secretly subversive comedy, but this London import takes it to ridiculous extremes — mostly to the good — at ART.

Ridiculusmus — aka actors David Woods and Jon Haynes — tackle all the trivial-pursuing roles, certainly a challenge when there’s an ever-changing pair of characters playing verbal tennis with Wilde’s witticisms, but seemingly insurmountable when the stage is populated with up to six characters at a time.

But that’s the fun, the mess and the absurd point of this virtuosic conceit and its admirable physical execution.

In the past “Earnest” has been reimagined to include a Lady Bracknell in drag and even made a musical. But Ridiculusmus makes Wilde’s surreal artifice in the face of reason and morality the very point of its comedy. It’s an especially wild approach to the playwright’s satire on the hypocrisy of the aristocratic code of conduct.

Here the aud is a co-conspirator with the performers as they ignore the conventions of society — not to mention the theater — in their effort to make clownish anarchy of the twits and wits of class-driven English society.

The show brings to mind another cuckoo company: Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theater, which took classic genres and twisted them into hilarious comic pretzels. In a way, this could be “The Mystery of Earnest Vep,” where the fun is in the outrageous lengths to which a pair of actors go for their comic art.

But with Ludlum’s “Irma Vep,” the source material was far from prime. Here the boys aren’t quite in the same camp — although they do slip into that mode on occasion (especially David Woods’ eyebrow-acting Cecily, who sounds like a Valley girl’s take on Bette Davis).

Unlike Ludlum’s scattershot comedy, however, Wilde’s lines are pure gold and the play’s structure, pace and purpose are precise. While landing quite a few Wilde moments, Ridiculusmus misses many as well; on occasion one simply yearns for the real — not just the surreal — thing.

The men often make up for it in sheer energy, nerve and some delicious between-the-lines playfulness. Still, pushing way past two hours, the forced and crude hilarity often flags and in the end we share the actors’ exhaustion.

However, the production introduces us to a pair of terrific talents. The lithe Haynes is upper-crust crisp as Algernon, sublimely frilly as Gwendolyn and a jittery delight as Miss Prism. The towering Woods plays the petulant Jack, the libidinous Cecily and a blase butler. They both share Lady Bracknell’s bird-topped chapeau, and when the action gets too fast and furious the actors simply let their petticoats, cutaways and hats do the talking (along with a couple of puppets, dummies and coat racks that serve as stand-ins).

Helmed by Jude Kelly, it is still an amusing show with moments of inspired lunacy. This romp should find further venues on these shores where auds are likely to welcome a less earnest “Earnest.” Others, however, may prefer a tamer Wilde.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Mass.; 556 seats; $50 top


An American Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Oscar Wild, devised and edited by David Woods, Jon Haynes and Jude Kelly. Directed by Kelly. Choreography, Marcelle Davies.


Sets and costumes, Zoe Atkinson; lighting, Joanne Currey; music and sound, Woods, Haynes, Kelly, Lawrence English; production manager, Rebecca Rees. Opened, reviewed Dec. 27, 2006. Runs through Jan. 14. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.


With: Ridiculusmus (David Woods, Jon Haynes).

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