The trouble with drawing room comedies is that drawing rooms are intrinsically boring. This is part of the problem with the Old Globe’s The Importance of Being Earnest – even Oscar Wilde’s spirited dialogue can’t quite overcome the production’s inherent stiffness.
Set in a posh London bachelor pad and country manor, the play follows Algernon Moncrief (Christian Conn) and John Worthing (Matt Schwader) as they plot various hijinks. Each has created a fictional person to help them evade their normal lives. Moncrief has a sick friend, Bunbury, who he visits periodically in the country. Worthing has an invented brother, Earnest Worthing, who he sees in London. Worthing goes the extra step of actually becoming Earnest when he visits the city.
John Worthing is smitten with Moncrief’s cousin Gwendolyn Fairfax (Kate Abbruzzese), who knows and loves him as Earnest. Strangely, she has a special affinity for that name. Gwendolyn’s mother, Lady Bracknell (Helen Carey), is less than enthused about the potential match. Fast forward to the second act, when Moncrief passes himself off as the real Earnest Worthing to meet Cecily Cardew (Helen Cespedes), John Worthing’s 18-year-old ward, at the manor house. She has never met Earnest and is thrilled by the opportunity.
The dialogue in this play is breathtakingly clever, as we would expect from Wilde, and the set is characteristically beautiful. And while I get that this is a play about the British upper class, do they have to be so stiff?
This is an ongoing peeve of mine, so bear with me or skip this paragraph. The Globe brilliantly remakes Shakespeare to make it more appealing to modern audiences. And yet, for some reason, Oscar Wilde is like a house in the historical registry that can’t be altered without direct approval from the mayor.
This is a talented cast – particularly Cespedes, who lights up the stage as Cecily – but they don’t have a lot to do. For the most part, the dialogue helps you forget the actors aren’t moving around a lot. Unfortunately, for the last 20 minutes, their feet appear nailed to the stage.