By Lynn Venhaus
Let’s face it, a comedy of manners about Victorian ways written in 1895 could go off the rails in 2018, even if it’s one of the most celebrated and enduring works of literature. But Insight Theatre Company’s crackling version of “The Importance of Being Earnest” smartly stays on track.
They’ve hit the sweet spot, crafting an amusing confection that elicits laughs from start to finish. Credit goes to perceptive direction by Ed Reggi, thoughtful work by dramaturg Nathan Wetter, and an adroit cast that delivers jokes and jabs with an ease that increased my comprehension and enjoyment.
In a well-appointed London drawing room, two bon vivants Algernon Moncrieff (Will Bonfiglio) and John Worthing (Pete Winfrey) catch up after Jack’s trip to the country, where he assumed a different identity “Ernest.”
The idle gents, best friends but more like frenemies, constantly bicker at a fast-paced clip. They soon ramp up the one-upmanship when it comes to their place in society and the ladies who are objects of their affections.
Algernon decides to use that same ploy in wooing Cecily (Julia Crump), who happens to be Jack’s ward and an heiress who lives in a country manor. Jack has set his sights on Gwendolen (Gwen Wotawa), Algie’s cousin, and his double life gets more complicated, until the ruse falls apart.
The comic interplay between Will Bonfiglio and Pete Winfrey is exceptional, as these two young pros showcase crisp timing and fluid delivery. They make every line count, and their chemistry gives the show zing.
Bonfiglio deftly turns a scene where he’s munching on muffins at tea time into a marvel of put-downs and zingers, dropping bon mots with a straight face, and only slightly smirking as he attempts to deflate Jack.
The effort the ensemble put in to make the very wordy dialogue fluent was impressive. Dialect consultant Jeff Cummings’ work was no doubt beneficial.
Reggi’s Second City training and experience in improvisation was key in making the satire effective and the story grounded in truth.
The world was very different for women at the turn of the 20th century, and all the maneuvers to become betrothed seem rather frivolous and tedious today for 21st century females. However, Crump and Wotawa do what they can to make their characters plausible. The couples play off each other well.
Wilde’s mocking of marriage and society’s institutions is evident, sly as though it might be.
This is, after all, a farce. One of its tell-tale signs is that in contemporary times, Algie’s aunt, assertive battle ax Lady Bracknell, has often been played by a man. Hey, it worked for Monty Python and Kids in the Hall, so why not a 19th century play written by one of literature’s most wicked wits, Oscar Wilde?
Tom Murray stomps in as one of theater’s most iconic roles and commands his scenes in a wily way. Convincingly playing it matter-of-fact, he is decadently snooty and snarky, with his wig and outfit hilarious on its own.
Supporting roles Miss Prism (Ruth Ezell), Dr. Chasuble (Steve Springmeyer) and Lane/Merriman (Spencer Kruse) advance the story.
The set changes were a bit long, but not that distracting. Scene designer Lucas Shryock managed to create distinctive environments.
Tony Anselmo’s lighting design and James Blanton’s sound design worked well at The Grandel.
After going years without seeing a decent production of Wilde’s widely hailed work, I was pleasantly surprised at this endearing interpretation.
Insight Theatre Company presents “The Importance of Being Earnest” July 12-15 and 19-22 at The Grandel Theatre, Grandel Square. For more information, visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com