Earnest times 

Oscar Wilde classic strikes an important balance

The last time I recall a Missoula production of The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People was in the mid-1990s when MCAT's Joel Baird, salon owner Tracy Scott Pray and former Missoula resident and character-about-town Severt Philleo performed it for audiences at the old Missoula Children's Theatre on Front Street. That production came just a few years after NBC started airing a little television show "about nothing" called "Seinfeld," with its morally questionable characters scheming about collecting unemployment and bantering about Pez dispensers. As an earnest and self-serious high school student at the time (and stage manager for the Earnest production), I generally had little interest in anything that didn't have some kind of deeper meaning. Eventually, Monty Python sketches and "Seinfeld" did awaken my appreciation for the absurd and the trivial. But Oscar Wilde's 1895 masterpiece took that appreciation a step further: It made me realize, in all seriousness, what an art maniacal farce can be.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Christopher Greensweight, left, and Richard Davenport star in The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Importance of Being Earnest is the story of two friends, the carefree country-dwelling Jack Worthing and the arrogant city-dwelling Algernon Moncrieff. Both Jack and Algy are a bit morally slippery, dabbling in double lives. Jack has concocted an imaginary mischievous brother named Ernest, whom he regularly uses as an excuse to visit the city, at which time he takes on the name Ernest. When Algy shows up to Jack's country home pretending to be his younger brother Ernest in order to woo Jack's ward, Cecily, the two fake Ernests find themselves in a madcap romantic comedy situationwith a great twist involving a handbag.

The production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Crystal Theatre this week showcases a loving, entertaining rendition directed by Carrie Ann Mallino of Sunshine Unlimited Productions. (Can you ever not have fun putting on this play? I doubt it.) If you saw the recent MCT production of Spamalot you'll be happy to see the talented Eric Prim, who played Patsy, doing a disaffected performance as Lane the Manservant and Merriman the Butler. Christopher Greensweight arguably steals the show as Lady Bracknell in poofy hair, huffy high heels and a stern black mole on her face. My reservations about men in drag for theater are high when it's used as a cheap way to get laughs (Monty Python overdoes it, for instance), but Greensweight embodies the opinionated, ruthless and meddlesome woman instead of parodying her, and it's just right.

Richard Davenport as Jack and Erik Montague as Algy take on the most difficult roles. Algy is such an arrogant ass and Jack is a somewhat deceptive uppercrust character. They're hardly pitiable underdogs—and the pressure is on because they're onstage for so much of the time. But Montague and Davenport, for the most part, don't let the absurdity of Wilde's dialogue drown them or push them toward overacting. It's a key balance. The same goes for the other characters, including Alysha Hutchinson, who plays Gwendolen Fairfax with an infectious, devilish delight.

In most productions, Lady Bracknell—whether she's played by a man or by Maggie Smith—gets a lot of attention because she's the most outrageous. Other characters, like Algy's love interest, Cecily Cardew, require a little more creative muster, and Stella Shannon hits that character out of the ballpark. The young actress has a knack for comic timing whether she's reading her diary aloud or acting put-out by the fact that her fiance isn't, as she'd once thought, named Ernest. "I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time," she says to Algy with just the right amount of sincerity. "That would be hypocrisy."

I have two main gripes. On the particular night I saw the production, almost every main actor—with the exception of Shannon—stumbled over lines just enough to make it uncomfortable. Why? This is a strong cast with the chops to make this show shine, and it causes the audience pain seeing a good actor grasping for the next word. Second, a set change—wherein a stagehand ends up on stage moving furniture around—happens in the middle of a scene and almost ruins the atmosphere entirely.

Those aren't minor things, but they're fixable. The actual work done onstage by the actors and under the direction of Mallino to bring this great comedy to life is commendable. If you've never experienced the play, go see it. If you're a veteran, you'll love hearing the exquisite dialogue again. Earnest is more than the "Seinfeld" of its day, it is a finely tuned and pun-perfect piece that entertained even while it made fun of high society. It took high society and serious people a while to figure that out, and that's what made it so genius.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Crystal Theatre Fri., March 21, and Sat., March 22, at 8 PM nightly, with a 2 PM matinee on Sun., March 23. $12.

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