Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Oscar Wilde is an actor’s best friend. The ur-aesthete’s words are so naturally weighted with punchlines that all you have to do is say them. The flip side, of course, is that if you get the words wrong, even just a little, it’s awfully hard to hide. That’s not to undersell the wonderful pair of performances at the center of Scena Theatre’s spirited but—as of Saturday’s press performance—arrhythmic jaunt into Wilde’s final and best work for the stage, The Importance of Being Earnest. The program says director Robert McNamara’s production is set in the 1920s, but there’s nothing here—certainly no acknowledgment of the generational herd-grinder of World War I—that would indicate we’re not in 1895, when the impersonation comedy debuted. A more notable alteration is that this is an equal-opportunity drag show: The boys play powdered-up girls and the ladies play gentlemen with mascara mustaches. The stunt pays the richest dividends in the case of burly Brian Hemmingsen’s turn as that battleaxe of patrician contempt, Lady Augusta Bracknell, iron-fisted enforcer of the hypocritical social mores Wilde delighted in sending up. In the women-as-boys column, every bit as delightful is Sara Barker’s mischevious spin as Algernon Moncrieff, a committed “Bunburyist” (or bullshit artist—you’ll recall that Bunbury is the imaginary invalid Algernon invents as an escape pod from tedious social obligations). Even if Barker was responsible for most of the flubbed lines Saturday night—rarely more damaging than in Wilde—it’s her gender-flip that lends the production the greatest sense of decadent cheek. She gives Algernon an indolent horndog physicality reminiscent of Gimme Shelter–era Mick Jagger. Happily, the production is more Woodstock than Altamont, which is to say, even though no one died, there was no shortage of logistical fuck-ups: Saturday night’s blocking was a mess. As Gwendolen and Cecely, the two delicate objects of Algernon and his pal Jack’s romantic pursuit, Tyler Herman and John Robert Keena are solidly amusing, and in Keena’s case, just plain solid: The sight of his dude-ical guns protruding from a sleeveless dress adds another ripple of laughter to what’s already a pretty funny sight gag. When they nearly throw down over what they believe to be a case of matrimonial double-booking—Algernon and Jack having each given promises under the name Earnest—they briefly let their voices and their gaits drop closer (presumably) to their default settings. It’s not what what you’d call urbane, Wildean comedy, but it sure works. Still, once you lose the rhythm it’s hard to recover. Intermission comes a mere 35 minutes in, and maybe that’s part of why this show that, interval included, wraps up in under two hours eventually comes to feel like—if you’ll pardon the expression—a bit of a drag.