The Importance of Being Earnest

If Oscar Wilde could survive public humiliation and "Reading Gaol," he can survive this asinine production of his 1895 comic masterpiece. Aquila founding directors Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond drop the elegant "Earnest" into the swinging London of the 1970s and reduce its wit and social commentary. It isn't a concept. It's a dumb idea.

If Oscar Wilde could survive the public humiliation of a criminal trial for sodomy and two punishing years in “Reading Gaol,” he can survive this asinine production of his 1895 comic masterpiece. Aquila founding directors Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond would be well within their aesthetic rights in “liberating” the classic play from its Victorian moorings had they applied modern techniques to reveal new facets of a brilliant work. But instead of teasing fresh delights from Wilde’s satirical farce, the perpetrators of this mindless exercise are merely entertaining themselves, in the manner of arrogant schoolboys who think that throwing chalk at the blackboard or talking back to the movie screen are clever artistic contributions.

As a touring company that spends eight months a year on the road in the U.S., Canada and Europe, Aquila travels largely on its wits. With few sets and props to speak of, the compact troupe of eight English and American performers gets by on the imagination and energy of its breezy conceptual treatments of classics like “The Comedy of Errors” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.” As a matter of honor, they even manage to do one ancient Greek play a season. It’s the sort of company you really wish well.

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But dropping the elegant “Earnest” into the swinging London of the early 1970s — and reducing its flashing epigrammatic wit and sly social commentary to low farce — isn’t a concept. It’s a dumb idea.

If Oscar Wilde has something to say about the ’70s (or vice versa), you can’t tell from the production design. The cheap Lucite furniture, hideous fitted suits and disheveled hairstyles add nothing to the callow characters of those debonair boobs-about-town Algernon (Guy Oliver-Watts) and Jack (Richard Willis) except a lack of taste that detracts from their feckless charm. In the same dumb-idea department, casting Lady Bracknell (Alex Webb) as a lusty man deprives that hidebound personage of the very source of her humor. And while the loosely choreographed outbursts of song and dance (is that supposed to be the Jerk?) pay due homage to the mind-numbing music of the period, they are no inspiration for the delicious games of identity that Jack and Algernon play to win the hands of their beloved Gwendolen (Cameron Blair) and Cecily (Lindsay Rae Taylor).

Although the company’s aggressive acting style ranges from broad farce to broader farce, Taylor somehow escapes the curse with a cool and knowing performance that (mirabile visu!) suggests Cecily might actually have a brain in her pretty head. Brains, however, are clearly an impediment in a company that prizes over-the-top clowning techniques like rolling on the floor, standing on the furniture, jumping up and down and falling off a bicycle. The one physical exercise that Aquila neglects to include is that of Oscar Wilde rolling over in his grave.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Baruch Performing Arts Center; 199 seats; $45 top

  • Production: An Aquila Theater Co. presentation, in two acts, of the 1895 comedy by Oscar Wilde. Produced by Peter Meineck, directed by Robert Richmond.
  • Crew: Production design, Meineck and Richmond; lighting, David Dunford; graphics, Brown Cathell; assistant director and production stage manager, Allegra Libonati. Artistic director, Meineck. Opened June 29, 2003. Reviewed June 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN
  • Cast: Algernon Moncrieff - Guy Oliver-Watts John (Jack) Worthing - Richard Willis Lady Bracknell - Alex Webb Hon. Gwendolyn Fairfax - Cameron Blair Miss Prism - Renata Friedman Cecily Cardew - Lindsay Rae Taylor Rev. Canon Chasuble - Andrew Schwartz
  • Music By: