Moonbox's "Earnest": The Joker's Wilde

The current offering by Moonbox Productions of the 1895 play by Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a welcome addition to the local theater scene indeed. As described by its author in its subtitle as “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”, his skewering of the customs and pretensions of Victorian England has not only survived the intervening centuries, but has become widely beloved as perhaps the funniest play ever written in the English tongue. Its familiarity to audiences notwithstanding, theatergoers looking for an evening of wit and wisdom would do well to attend this impeccable production. As directed by Allison Olivia Choat (who helmed last season‘s excellent “A New Brain”), and performed by a flawlessly crusted cast (upper as well as lower), this is another feather in this company’s cap, from the very moment we first see the archetypal servant cleaning up after, and setting up before, the extravagances of his “superiors” in society.

Lane (Matthew Zahnzinger), manservant to Algernon Moncrieff (Glen Moore), is arranging the morning room in Algernon’s London flat for tea (and rearranging the room after what appears to have been a rather rambunctious party). Lane’s meticulous attention to detail is matched by his obvious disdain for his master’s tastes in chocolates and wine, as he samples the leftovers of both. Algernon, having just finished a piano piece, declaims that he doesn’t “play accurately, anyone can play accurately, but (he plays) with wonderful expression”. Lane offers that he hasn’t heard this because he “didn’t think it polite to listen”. Such is Wilde’s command of phrase turning that he manages to sum up in a few words the relationship between the classes. When his friend Jack (also known as John in the city, and as Ernest in the country) Worthing (Andrew Winson) arrives, he too sums up his lifestyle thus: “When one is in town one amuses oneself; when one is in the country one amuses other people; it is excessively boring”.

The arrival of Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Ed Peed), with her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax (Cat Claus), for tea, cements the portrayal of the upper class as Bracknell pronounces that she has been looking forward to “one of those nice cucumber sandwiches you promised” (and which Algernon has completely consumed). The very model of a modern major general, or perhaps battleship more accurately, Lady Bracknell is naturally appalled at the details of Worthing’s unworthy birth, and Peed gives it his all with both tone of voice and facial expression. This is truly unfortunate for Worthing given his wish to propose to Gwendolen, as will also be the case for Algernon who wishes to propose to Ernest’s young ward Cecily Cardew (Poornima Kirby). Providing social commentary are Cecily’s all too present governess Miss Prism (Catherine Lee Christie) and her suitor of sorts, Rev. Canon Chasuble (Gabriel Graetz). The remaining cast member is Merriman (Ray O’Hare), butler to John/Jack/Ernest. Each of them has her or his opportunity to shine, whether in verbal gymnastics or mime, and Choat has prepared all of them with an eye toward the jugular but with the precisely proper restraint. In the wrong hands, this work could end up tiresome or tedious; with this director and her cast, it’s anything but, becoming a fast-paced, sharp-tongued and thoroughly enchanting comedy of manners and manors. The technical crew adds a great deal to the overall success of this production, from the ingenious Scenic Design by John Paul Devlin to the Lighting Design by Jeffrey E. Salzberg, Sound Design by Dan Costello, lovely Costume Design by Susanne Miller and the efforts of Music Director/Composer Dan Rodriguez and his quartet.

One couldn’t ask for a more enjoyable version of a classic like this. It is almost criminal to single out individual actors or moments from such a terrific ensemble, but a few must be noted. Winson’s exasperation at many of the goings-on is hysterical, frequently reminiscent of John Cleese at his finest, and Peed’s delivery, accompanied by perfectly timed gestures with Lady Bracknell’s lorgnette and reticule, are a wonder to behold. Kirby’s ditsy Cecily is downright hilarious. From the pun inherent in its title (Ernest finally learning the importance of being earnest) to its revelations within its pivotal handbag, this production is a gem.

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