‘Earnest’ is too important to miss

‘Earnest’ is too important to miss

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Scott Suchman)

It always is satisfying to while away the hours at the theater, but it’s most especially pleasurable to let playwright and poet Oscar Wilde remind us of the imbroglios of the upper class in Victorian England.

In the Shakespeare Theatre Co.’s delightful piece of froth that is “The Importance of Being Earnest,” we are given a glimpse through the looking glass of London society.

Algernon Moncrieff is a terminally bored dandy with a grand sense of getting up to no good. His avatar is a naughty character he calls “Bunbury.” Algy’s equally ne’er-do-well friend, Jack Worthing, trumps himself up as “Earnest,” a man looking after a beautiful young ward named Cecily, whose care has been entrusted to him by a relative.

The merriment begins when Algy’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, and her niece, Gwendolyn Fairfax, arrive at his fashionable West End home for a visit. When Jack declares his intention to marry Gwendolyn, who prefers the name Earnest — “It produces vibrations,” she admits — the frolic begins.

Lady Bracknell, who delivers all of her high-minded remarks as pronouncements, feels it is her duty to grill him on his social standing. Discovering that he was a foundling discovered ignobly in a railroad station, she gives him short shrift, despite his fortune.

When Algy races off behind his friend’s back, hoping to woo Cecily, he portrays himself as Earnest too. Cecily assures him that she too could only marry a man named Earnest, to which he replies, “What if my name were Algernon? It’s a very aristocratic name. Half the chaps that get into bankruptcy courts are named Algernon!”

Regardless, she and Gwendolyn remain firm in their convoluted determination.

The how, when and wherefore of the gentlemen’s love lives turns the plot. But it’s the steady repartee, quaint in its moralistic rhetoric, which renders the play irresistible. Forgetfulness is referred to as “mental abstraction,” and arguments are considered “vulgar and often convincing.” It’s a topsy-turvy Wodehousian world.

Sian Phillips, a veteran of the BBC series “I, Claudius,” imbues Lady Bracknell with the steely demeanor of a true Victorian matriarch. Anthony Roach crafts a delightfully whimsical Algernon, while Gregory Wooddell plays Jack effortlessly. And Patricia Conolly — as Cecily’s governess, the self-righteous Miss Prism — creates the perfect foil for the rest of the cast.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” is as fabulous as it is flawless.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” runs though March 9 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets and information, call 202 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.