Long before there was “Seinfeld,” there was “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
It isn’t a perfect comparison. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld, playwright Oscar Wilde did not star in plays based loosely on his own life. He did, in this case, write clever and cynical dialogue that uses memorable characters to make light of serious subjects.
A play about nothing? Not quite. But a play that rewards those who pay close attention to witticisms that come in rapid-fire succession? Yes, particularly when performed as competently as Baton Rouge Little Theater does in its production, which opened last weekend directed by Kurt Hauschild.
Set in late 19th-century England, the play aims Wilde’s rapier wit at a fat target — the idle, snobbish rich. They don’t get much more idle or snobbish than Algernon Moncrieff, played with perfect pitch by Phil Blanchard. When his best friend, John “Jack” Worthing (Travis Williams) pays a visit, they discover that both are living double lives of a sort.
Moncrieff has a fictitious friend named Bunbury whom he uses as an excuse to avoid distasteful social obligations. Moncrieff thought Worthing’s name was Ernest, but that is merely the name he uses when in London. At his country home, he goes by his real name and maintains a serious attitude for the benefit of his ward, the heiress Cecily Cardew (Emily Caroline Wright). Worthing has told her he has a depraved brother in London whom he must often attend to.
This, of course, is what makes the play’s title so deliciously ironic. Just as there is no Ernest, neither of the main characters place much value in being earnest, but increasingly desperate and hilarious circumstances will teach them its importance.
Naturally, love interests provide fuel for this fire. Moncrieff drops in on Worthing’s country home in pursuit of Cecily. Worthing wants to marry Gwendolen Fairfax (Courtney Murphy), but struggles to get past the objections of her imperious mother, Lady Bracknell (wonderfully played by Jennifer Johnson).
The production is strongly cast throughout, including supporting roles: Nancy Litton as Miss Prism, John Sallinger as the Rev. Canon Chasuble and Tyler Grezaffi as servants to both Moncrieff and Worthing. Chris Adams’ scenic design is understated yet elegant.
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