We all need a little “Earnest” in our lives. I’m guessing that the strong new production of the Oscar Wilde classic “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the 2nd Space Theatre is easily the tenth time I’ve seen the show, including several professional outings, and I’m always happy to see another fine version.
“Fine” is certainly a word to use for this Good Company Players production, which delivers the silly drawing-room comedy — boasting Wilde’s famed wordplay and prickly parries at Britain’s stuffy upper classes — in a well-directed, nicely cast package. I’ve seen productions in the past of “Earnest” that felt overstuffed and somehow rounded, like plump little Victorian pillows, content to be museum pieces. Director J. Daniel Herring achieves another sensibility here: this “Earnest” feels a little sharper, more angled, brisk and athletic. And very funny.
David Pierce’s wonderful set helps set the mood: a minimalist backdrop design featuring columns (for a classical touch) but also slender poles with swiveling panels (adding a modern feel). The view behind goes back to a curtain, suggesting a glimpse through the walls. Everything about the scenic design speaks to transparency, of being able to see through something, including the backs of the chairs and the tables.
This transparency is an intriguing counterbalance to the play’s famed hazy plot machinations of invented alter egos, mistaken identities and harmless little lies. It’s no use attempting a synopsis — if you’ve seen or read the show, which many have, you already know that Jack Worthing is also known as Ernest, and his double life soon catches up with him, to hilarious results. (And if this is your first time — lucky you! — you don’t need to know more than that.)
Ryan Torres offers yet another impressive notch on his local theater resume as Jack, finding in the character a supple blend of low-key suaveness and uptight skittishness. He bounces nicely off his main foil, Algernon (an endearing Jacob Rico). “Earnest” requires bluster but not danger between the two, and the pair delivers with easygoing charm. Tess Mize, as Gwendolyn, and Kayla Weber, as Cecily, are crisp and effective as the love interests. Heather Parish’s precise Miss Prism and Gordon Moore’s officious Rev. Chasuble pop up in choice moments. The butlers (Benjamin Geddert and Mitchell Lam Hau) get a chance for a few comic jolts.
Then there’s Patricia Hoffman as the iconic Lady Bracknell, Algernon’s overbearing aunt. Hoffman offers a fresh, interesting take on the character. Her Lady Bracknell isn’t as sternly in control or as overwhelmingly formidable as I’ve seen in other interpretations. She comes across as a tiny bit flustered even as she delivers her precious Wilde one-liners. (Could it be she senses early on that Jack is a more dangerous opponent than she lets on?) Yet there’s enough of the battleship in her to satisfy Bracknell purists in the bunch. Just her pronunciation of “authenticity” could qualify as a word weapon in some states.)
Helping Hoffman achieve that persona is Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s gorgeous costumes. Sometimes period productions can look frumpy because, quite frankly, the clothes don’t fit that well. These look like they come straight from a high-end London tailor.
Herring’s accomplished blocking (or movement of the actors on stage) often approaches a state of choreography, with the rapid wit of the characters matched by lots of flowing, gliding, circling and angled interactions. I found myself in this production drawn to the smallest moments: Cecily’s squeal when Earnest kisses her forehead; the maniacal glint in the eye of Hau’s butler when he staggers by with another load of luggage; the strained grin on Jack’s face when he slides open the door at the beginning of the third act. The words and movements seem inseparable.
Here’s a confession about “The Importance of Being Earnest”: Even though I’ve seen it a number of times, I always allow myself — without making a conscious effort — to forget the exact details of the ending. And in that sense, it remains fresh. In that regard, perhaps, I remain earnest in my love of the show. This new Good Company production makes that as easy as snarfing down a cucumber sandwich.