For a refreshingly funny take on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Scena Theatre has tweaked the gay literary genius’ most enduringly popular work in ways that only add to the good time. In addition to an inspired stroke of reverse-gender casting (boys play girls and girls play boys), director Robert McNamara intensifies Wilde’s send-up of London society by moving the action from the final days of Victorian England to the more socially rebellious 1920s.
“Earnest” follows the machinations of dapper young dandies Algernon “Algy” Moncrieff (the versatile Sara Barker) and Jack Worthing, played by Anne Nottage as a sleepy-eyed aristocrat. While pleasure-seeking Algy ducks out of his aunt’s deathly dull dinner parties by pretending to visit Bunbury, a fictitious sick friend, his pal Jack escapes the quiet of country living by rushing off to assist his imaginary profligate brother Ernest in the city. When Algy and Jack respectively fall in love with young lovelies Cecily Cardew (a hilariously bobbed and brawny John Robert Keena) and Gwendolyn Fairfax (a delightfully dizzy Tyler Herman), an amusing comedy of errors ensues.
As Algy’s gorgon aunt, Lady Bracknell, Brian Hemmingsen never stoops to low camp. Rather he approaches the part of the pompous, social arbitress with almost unyielding seriousness, and the results are side-splitting. Kim Curtis is a frowzy, loopy hoot as Cecily’s governess Miss Prism, who famously misplaced a baby in the cloakroom at Victoria Station. Unfortunately, the comic romance between Prism and the Rev. Canon Chasuble (Stacy Whittle) is lost in this production. Ellie Nicoll and Mary Suib are terrific as a pair of unflappable menservants.
The gender bending casting accentuates the duality of “Earnest’s” characters. Just like Algy and Jack leading double lives, Cecily is built more like a linebacker than a debutante. And despite her imperious, old guard ways, Lady Bracknell (a part that is often played by a man) is not what she seems, but rather an arriviste without fortune who married for money and status. Here and there, the outrageousness of some of the casting upstages the true star of any Wilde play — the marvelous language. But ultimately his words are such that their spotlight cannot be dimmed.
On a presumably limited budget, Alisa Mandel has effectively costumed the show’s younger quartet as London’s “Bright Young Things” — Algy and Jack sport dapper suits and boater hats, while Gwendolyn and Cecily favor drop waist dresses and cloches. Hardly a slave to flapper fashions, the intransient Lady Bracknell prefers a monstrous hat rigged with great white plumes and a few morning doves.
Michael Stepowany’s black and white, art nouveau set is backed by a large movie screen that occasionally comments with a pithy, silent film subtitle; and sound designer Matt Otto supplies upbeat incidental music from the Jazz Age.
“Earnest” is Wilde’s last play, the culminating masterpiece of his fabulous career. (Not long after the play’s successful London 1895 premiere, Wilde was brought to trial and convicted of “gross indecency” with other men. After serving time in prison, Wilde died broke and alone in a Paris hotel room.) Perfectly constructed, “Earnest” is rife with plot turns and instances of Wildean wit: “Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.”
Lesser productions of “Earnest” can prove painful to sit through, but this cast does justice to Wilde’s sparkling epigrams. For those who know the play, Scena’s “Earnest” is a perfect opportunity to become reacquainted; and for the uninitiated, it’s a happy introduction to Wilde’s timeless brilliance.
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’
Through Aug. 29
H Street Playhouse
1365 H Street, NE