There have been at least six attempts to musicalize “The Importance of Being Earnest” — including the sublimely titled “Born in a Handbag” — none of which have worked for one unassailable reason: The wit of Oscar Wilde’s finest play rests absolutely upon the scintillating rhythmic precision of its language. As Gwendolen retorts when baffled by Jack’s airy hazarding that he doesn’t like the name Earnest, “It has a music of its own. It produces vibrations.” Thanks to director Peter Gill, who possesses the finest ear in British theater, here Wilde’s language really does vibrate.
To a degree, the play’s enduring success is its undoing. It must be second only to “Hamlet” for its sheer number of famous lines, not least of which is Lady Bracknell’s scandalized response to the news that her prospective son-in-law was found in “a handbag.” Weak productions either cower beneath the power of those famous phrases, or gild the lily by knowingly overplaying them. Gill’s cast does neither.
British theater may be famous for its “classiness” but even Peter Hall ran into trouble reviving the similarly class-conscious “Hay Fever” with a cast whose younger members failed to master the easeful power of upper-class speech and demeanor. But just as he did with his magisterial National Theater revival of “The Voysey Inheritance,” Gill knows exactly how to drill a cast to sound (and move) as if they had never endured a day’s struggle in their lives.
Aided considerably by William Dudley’s sharply-cut costumes — and, in the case of the women, spectacular millinery — the actors move remarkably speedily through the text. Their highly wrought speeches sparkle with witticisms, but they play them like genuine quick-fire dialogue, not a list of quotations.
Casting unusually young actors — two of the leads only left drama school in 2006 — makes the men’s roguish selfishness wholly plausible. Even more pertinently, Algernon (William Ellis) and Jack (Harry Hadden-Paton), look strikingly alike, which, given that they ultimately discover themselves to be brothers, makes complete sense.
Both men are good at being almost despicably debonair but Hadden-Paton is a real discovery. Compared with Ellis’ slightly more driven Algernon, he lends Jack a lightly worn gravitas that grounds the character. This is offset by the increasingly winning physicality of his performance. Outraged at Algernon stealing all the muffins — and insinuating himself into the affections of Jack’s ward Cicely (Rebecca Night) — his long body fills and jackknifes with rage to splendidly funny effect.
He’s matched by Daisy Haggard’s knockout performance as Gwendolen. Without ever contradicting Gwendolen’s immaculate breeding, flashing-eyed Haggard unleashes devilment with every look and line. She flirts audaciously, not just with Jack, but with overkill yet always stays within the bounds of propriety. Her infectious delight in game-playing fires up her every exchange.
“All women become like their mothers,” opines Algernon, and it’s abundantly clear Haggard will wind up with as much incontrovertible self-confidence as her mother, Lady Bracknell (Penelope Keith).
Keith’s career has been entirely dependent upon a reproving, self-confident snobbery honed in TV sitcoms. This fits Lady Bracknell like a glove but limits her possibilities. Wisely, Keith rejects the notion of playing her as a comic gorgon, instead portraying a pragmatist briskly steering her only daughter into a perfect matrimonial arrangement.
But that fails to up the stakes sufficiently. This is a woman who even rings the doorbell “in that Wagnerian manner.” Keith’s one-note performance — more dismissive than dangerous — lets the wind out of the production’s sails.
Night gives Cecily entertaining vigor but never quite relaxes into the role. She appears a little strained vocally, toppling her character over into archness. There’s little doubt that Gwendolen has the upper-hand in their celebrated tea-party battle.
William Dudley’s art nouveau sets are remarkably elegant on what is clearly a too-meager budget. Whenever rear doors open, they reveal not a room or corridor but standard black theater curtains. Not only does it look cheap, it belies a play wholly concerned with the splendor of surfaces.
Paradoxically, the contrast between surface and what is hidden beneath is at the heart of this seemingly heartless comedy. There’s a strong case for saying the play’s ceaseless fascination with disguise and deceit, codes of behavior and secret lives makes it the gayest play in the language. But Gill, who when not directing has written more than one gay play himself, never falls into the trap of underlining dialogue to prove the point. He and his company play it, as it were, straight.