For Everyman’s frothy production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (★★★), company member Bruce Randolph Nelson joins the long list of leading men who have strung up a corset and donned a chapeau to play the imposing Lady Bracknell. The upper crust queen bee in a buzzing 1890s hive of lovers, liars, and busybodies, Bracknell is a role that lends easily to the haughty confidence of drag presentation. So does the Lady’s glamorous wardrobe, and costume designer David Burdick doesn’t disappoint in bedecking this society grande dame in some dazzling frocks.
Nelson carries off Bracknell’s fashion and wears her brisk air of superiority with gumption, from her crowning millinery to the gloved hand holding her walking stick. She thrusts that cane like a sword at her impetuous daughter Gwendolen (Katie Kleiger), and at her somewhat beloved nephew Algernon Moncrieff (Danny Gavigan), both of whom she schemes to keep in line.
But in this Wilde world, the young, or not as mature, are ever defiant of the wishes of their elders. They’re also more than capable of scheming on their own. So it’s Algernon’s schemes, and those of his friend and confidant Jack Worthing (Jaysen Wright) — both pretending to be a man named Earnest — that drive the galloping plot.
And it’s the play’s winking cynicism about Algernon and Jack’s bachelor ways, which are far from earnest, that keeps the story feeling modern. Director Joseph W. Ritsch’s well-paced staging is just spicy enough and just screwball enough to feel naughty and old-fashioned at the same time, yet is always elegant.
Adding to that, the production looks as fresh as an unplucked rose, thanks to Daniel Ettinger’s bright set design and Burdick’s costumes for all the players, particularly Bracknell and Algernon. It’s all lit cheerfully by Harold F. Burgess II for an overall aesthetic that channels the vibrancy of the language.
The show’s bounce helps it over a few bumps, namely a second act of three that lags a bit in the story’s trip to the country house that Jack shares with his ward Cecily (Paige Hernandez). Young Cecily has designs of her own on an Earnest who almost certainly doesn’t exist.
If there’s a character among this lot that it might be guessed the writer himself didn’t care for, it would be Cecily, a child playing a grown-ups’ game. The portrayal by Hernandez is hampered by an accent and delivery that are up and down, but she’s utterly invested in the sheltered Cecily’s ingenuousness, which counts for a lot. Well, it counts for something.
The entire cast, including Helen Hedman as Cecily’s governess Miss Prism, is up to speed on Wilde’s wordplay, but several bits of physical comedy, like a mock sword fight with Kleiger’s confident Gwendolen, are more hmm funny than ha-ha hilarious. The awkward physicality extends to Ritsch’s tendency here to plant characters a bit too prominently onstage during other characters’ monologues. They stare off — pondering, plotting, meditating — and what might be going through their heads, or whether they’re supposed to be aware of the person speaking, becomes a distracting guessing game.
A guessing game more germane to the plot of Wilde’s classic satire, and more stimulating too, is the fun of trying to read the witty and aloof trickster Algernon. He wants to be seen but not be exposed, and Gavigan’s mellow but mischievous turn captures the rogue’s many contradictions. His and Wright’s suggestive rapport as friends who know each other’s secrets keeps Algernon and Jack’s scenes swimming in subtext.
Gavigan teases out especially well many shades of hidden or underlying humor in the dialogue without making it look obvious. Whereas Lady Bracknell aims her barbs to sting, speaking loudly and carrying a big stick, Algernon works with a lighter touch that’s deftly played, and well attuned to one of the play’s cleverer contradictions: “In matters of grave importance, style — not sincerity — is the vital thing.”
The Importance of Being Earnest runs through December 30 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore. Tickets are $10 to $65. Call 410-752-2208, or visit everymantheatre.org.