“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” says Algernon Moncrieff in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comic masterpiece, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” I don’t really agree with this, but this epigram evokes the essence of the play, which is full of characters that Wilde manages to make complex, even while they seem to embrace superficiality.
The Two River Theater in Red Bank is currently presenting a first-class production of this play, which is probably packed with more witticisms than any other play written in the English language.
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” … “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” … “No woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.” Wilde’s characters speak like, this, non-stop.
The Two River production, directed by Tony-nominated actor Michael Cumpsty, is a crisp, clear, no-nonsense version of the play, with suitably posh sets and costumes by Charlie Corcoran and Jess Goldstein, respectively. It’s also one of the most visually impressive shows to be presented in New Jersey in quite a while, with each scene (in a London apartment and the garden and drawing room of a country house, respectively) having a distinct, memorable look, and the sumptuous, sophisticated and boldly colorful look of it adding to the overall sense of fun. (To get a sense of what I’m talking about, check out the video, below.)
This is not, in any way, a reinterpretation of Wilde’s play, or an attempt to uncover previously unexplored nuances. It is simply a golden opportunity to delight in his writing, and enjoy the performances of the uniformly excellent cast.
Deserving particular praise are Sam Lilja, who projects a sense of joyful playfulness as the irreverent, unfiltered Algernon, and Randy Danson as his opposite — the eternally stern, imperiously disapproving Lady Bracknell. When she makes her entrance at the start of the play’s third and final act (acts I and II are both performed before an intermission), she gives the others characters a look so intensely withering it almost seems to have a physical force. I think everyone in the theater must have shuddered, at least a little bit.
In smaller roles, Henry Vick and Bob Mackasek are very good, too, as the servants Lane and Merriman, doing their jobs but also arching their eyebrows in stoic disdain at the ridiculous way their employers are behaving.
The plot revolves around two romances. Algernon pursues Cecily (Liesel Allen Yeager), the young, innocent ward of Algernon’s friend, Jack (Federico Rodriguez), while Jack pursues Gwendolen (Rosa Gilmore), Algernon’s worldly cousin. Both Algernon and Jack use the false name, Ernest, at times. Many complications and some preposterous surprises ensue, on the way to a happy ending.
It is silly and frothy at times? Yes, of course. But there’s nothing wrong with being, as Cumpsty says in the play’s program, “something to cheer us all up.” This “The Importance of Being Earnest” does just that, brilliantly.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” will be presented at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through Dec. 3. Visit tworivertheater.org.