By Vicki Paris Goodman
How does one improve upon the best of the best? How does one make my favorite play of all plays even better? I couldn’t wait to see if it was possible, knowing that the odds in favor of such a phenomenon were brutal at best. And as I suspected, the perfection of the commonly produced shorter version of The Importance of Being Earnest still remains the standard bearer, at least for me.
However, the Ark Theatre Company’s mounting of the first-ever Los Angeles production of Oscar Wilde’s longer original script is still a delight, and a should-see for devotees of Earnest. Rest assured, the Ark’s effort on the play’s behalf yields far more than a few delicious moments.
The differences in the original version are the title, one additional minor character, a brief additional act, the surnames of two characters, some added verbiage here and there, and, curiously enough, the rather glaring (I thought) omission of the fifth to the last word uttered by Jack (Ernest) Worthing in the end-of-play “punch line.” Otherwise, all of the priceless dialogue that we fans know and love is there, all there.
Apparently Wilde had originally thought to name the play Lady Lancing, after a very minor character who is mentioned once but does not actually appear in either version of the script. But the ever-so-fabulous play on words that eventually became the play’s sole title was conceived a bit later, and is so much more fun, don’t you think? I agree.
The added character in the added scene is a solicitor (lawyer) charged with persuading Algernon to settle his debt at London’s Savoy Hotel. Algernon Moncrieff and Lady Bracknell, we learn, began as Algernon Montford and Lady Brancaster in the original script. I don’t have a preference either way between Brancaster and Bracknell, but Moncrieff is so much more alliterative than Montford!
For those who aren’t familiar with Wilde’s finest work, Earnest is about, well, nothing really. That is what’s so amazing. Wilde keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting for an outcome in a play that is all comedic repartee amounting to little more than meaningless nonsense. In the end, we have been gleefully subjected to Wilde’s merciless skewering of England’s Victorian upper class, and have been gifted with a truly satisfying final line of dialogue.
Oh, there’s a silly plot about two young women who place the name Ernest above all other “virtues” in a husband. Their two gentlemen fancy themselves advanced “Bunburyists”– a “Bunburyist” being one who invents a friend or relative who requires his frequent attention, to be used as an excuse for bowing out of dreary family get-togethers and other obligations in favor of doing what one wants.
One of the gentlemen has had a challenging upbringing due to a nanny’s unfortunate error, resulting in his having been abandoned, as an infant, in a handbag at Victoria Station– the Brighton line. And on and on…
Ken Johnson and Douglas Leal co-star as Jack (Ernest) and Algy, and they are, in a word, marvelous– as expressive as any two actors I’ve seen in these roles.
Caroline Sharp’s Cecily is a study in self-confident adolescent Victorian superficiality combined with an extraordinary gift of gab. Sharp does an exquisite job. Other cast members are Quincy Miller (Reverend Chasuble), Brendon Hawley (Lane and Mr. Gribsby– the added character), Devon Myers (Merriman), Helene McCardle (Lady Brancaster), Anna Quirino-Miranda (Gwendolen) and Osa Danam (Miss Prism).
Leal also co-directs the fine production with Derek Charles Livingston on a spare but more-than-
adequate set whose designer wasn’t specified. Props are invisible– think, stuffing one’s face with cucumber sandwiches and muffins without having any available– which detracted nothing from the effect. Sometimes the imagination is even funnier than the real thing.
As for Lady Lancing, Wilde himself changed the play’s title to The Importance of Being Earnest before the play ever opened. Wilde’s producer insisted upon shortening the original script and made the cuts himself. The story goes that Wilde never approved of the shortened version. Of the 1895 premiere, Wilde reportedly quipped, “From time to time I was reminded of a play I once wrote myself, called The Importance of Being Earnest.” I think Wilde was being a bit dramatic.
Lady Lancing, or The Importance of Being Earnest, produced by the Ark Theatre Company, continues at The Attic Theatre, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., in Los Angeles, through Aug. 15. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sunday Aug. 8 at 7pm; and Sunday Aug. 15 at 2pm. General admission is $20; students and seniors are $15. Call the box office at (323) 969-1707 for reservations and information, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.