Oscar Wilde was certainly the most notorious “degenerate” of the late 19th century. It’s a fair bet Robert Mapplethorpe has been as widely renowned and reviled in the waning decades of the 20th.

Why talk of the dandy and the photographer in the same breath? Because in a breathtakingly audacious, highly stylized Olney Theatre production of the former’s greatest play, director Richard Romagnoli pays unmistakable visual homage to the latter’s most subversively mainstream art: The giant calla lilies that flank Mark Evancho’s white tilt-a-whirl wonder of a set help Romagnoli sell a reconstructivist vision of The Importance of Being Earnest—that lightest and brightest of farces—as a tragic metaphor for Wilde’s tangled romantic affairs and his very public (self-) destruction. Yes, the approach occasionally seems a little self-conscious; still, it’s immensely intelligent and just about as exciting as it can be.

Romagnoli, who normally comes to Olney under the banner of the Potomac Theatre Project, frames the play with short sequences set to spare, tinkly dance cadences that sound suspiciously like the music of Peter Greenaway favorite Michael Nyman (Prospero’s Books, The Cook, the Thief…, etc.). At the opening, white-clad servants in whiteface arrange white drawing-room furniture against a black backdrop, pausing now and again to pose in arch imitation of their masters’ studied languidness. When Algernon (David Barlow) enters, it’s not to deliver his first line; instead he flirts dangerously with a feather, blowing it up into the air repeatedly, obsessively, until the effort of sustained frivolity has completely exhausted him and he lies panting on the white carpet. When his manservant Lane (Conrad Feininger, restrained, dignified, and sad) comes to help him up, the tenderness between them is palpable.

And at the end of the evening, when all would have ended happily in another production, Algernon is somehow bereft. Romagnoli’s staging leaves a great gulf between him and the woman the script tells us he’s going to marry, and again it’s Lane who steadies him, pulling him up and into a halting gavotte, joined eventually by the bride-to-be in a kind of grim chorus line in which they support the stricken Algernon and do their best to make the dance look “natural”—which is to say not natural at all, but socially acceptable.

In between, Algy talks seriously to his friend Jack (a rather too brash James Matthew Ryan) of trivial things like tea-muffins and matrimony; both pose as Ernest, a debauched younger brother Jack has invented as an excuse to escape his dull life in the countryside; as Ernest, Jack woos Algy’s cousin Gwendolen (Shannon Parks, delightfully pinched and poised) and fences with her gorgon of a mother, Lady Bracknell (a very funny Halo Wines); as Ernest, Algy drops in at Jack’s country place to court Jack’s ward Cecily (an endearing Kate Anthony). Epigrams fly like arrows; confusion ensues.

The play, with its comic web of confusions and happy coincidences, has always been about masks; its world is one of artifice, concealed identity, and deception. As early as 1952, Mary McCarthy saw it as a “ferocious idyll” in which “depravity is the hero and the only character.” Here, with staging tricks and unusual emphasis on quips that normally get thrown away, Romagnoli lays the “depravity” on the doorstep of a culture that thrived—still thrives—on surfaces: His Algy is more than usually meant to be Wilde (all the playwright’s great dandies have something of their creator in them: Consider An Ideal Husband’s Lord Goring or Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance). This Algernon isn’t just clever and “trivial,” he’s tormented by the weight of conflicting desires: for Jack, who’s not willing to entertain his advances, and for society’s benison, embodied by Cecily. His pursuit of her (in the guise of Ernest) isn’t so much a game as a desperate attempt to escape into another, better life—one that, inevitably, doesn’t fit well, one that he can’t sustain. Or maybe it’s merely an effort to link himself irrevocably to Jack, once Jack has violently rejected him.

Charming performances by the women in the cast make all this metaphorical weight easier to take; what makes it all work is Barlow’s intensely moving performance as Algy. There’s something of the young Peter O’Toole (with all the seductiveness and licentiousness that implies) about his mouth and his brow, and there’s a kind of soulfulness in his eyes that communicates the pain Romagnoli wants us to see behind the character’s witty façade.

True, there are moments when the effort of sustaining the concept threatens to become intrusive. One emotional outburst over tea-ceremonials seems more necessary for pacing than inspired by any revisionist reading of the scene. And certainly Romagnoli’s ideas about what the play has to say about the playwright will make partisans of the audience. Traditionalists may hate the conceit, but no one can say it’s been imposed arbitrarily on the text: The pointed observations this production makes—about living lies for appearance’s sake, about the relative worth of shallow values and sensual pleasures—have always been there in the script. Go with an open mind, and you’ll find it an eye-opener.CP