Done with the right touch—a kind of airy, thoughtless conviction—Oscar Wilde’s comedy can be perfectly effervescent. Lean too hard into his wit, though, and…well, let me quote the playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, who writes that it’s easy to overemphasize the clever and “lose ‘the funny.’”
The irony is that Hatcher offers that opinion in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Asides magazine, a kind of briefing book the troupe publishes for patrons who want more than the baseline program notes. The occasion? The company’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s crowning comic achievement, a satire of aristocratic idleness and high-society surfaces that in this hectoring reading has all the fizz of a day-old Diet Coke.
It’s a shame, really, because the staging looks phenomenal on the page. Keith Baxter, veteran director of Wildean and Restoration comedies, is at the helm. Gregory Wooddell, matinee-idol star of Baxter’s An Ideal Husband and other Shakespeare Theatre Company outings, is Jack Worthing, wealthy and sardonic and famously related to a handbag. (What? Just Google it.) And Siân Phillips, distinguished veteran of stage and screen, takes on the delicious harridan Lady Bracknell, deliverer of some of Wilde’s most memorably withering takedowns.
Then there’s the design team—and as any subscriber knows, nobody spends money on upholstery like Shakespeare Theatre does. Robert Perdziola did the gowns, which on Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolyn Fairfax (a pleasingly pert Vanessa Morosco) seem so sturdily constructed they might stand up quite well without the trouble of a body inside them. Simon Higlett’s sets—a handsome London bachelor’s flat for the frivolous Algernon Moncrieffe (Anthony Roach), all claret-and-gold Orientalia, then a gracious bloom-strewn garden at Jack’s country estate—invite fantasies of wealth and ease, even as they frame the escalating shenanigans of characters who want to live for pleasure but are constrained by Victorian mores that insist they pretend otherwise.
It’s not as though there are no bright spots. Patricia Conolly, not least, is admirably flappable as the prim governess Miss Prism, whose charge Cecily (Katie Fabel) is another of the production’s more gratifyingly unforced presences. Shakespeare Theatre veteran Floyd King, too, turns in a relatively relaxed performance as Canon Chasuble, mildly clueless cleric and maker of fantastically blunt metaphors.
In those central roles, though, Wooddell and Roach and Phillips push and bellow and posture, and Baxter has them declaiming Wilde’s snowflake-perfect dialogue strenuously enough that it becomes a mere avalanche of words. As Gwendolyn says at one point, “style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” Yes ma’am. Yes indeed.