It's Oscar Wilde season on the peninsula, thanks to overlapping performances of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, though June 21, 2008 at Bus Barn Stage Company in Los Altos, and theatre Q's production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, by Moises Kaufman, May 31 through June 22, 2008, at the Dragon Theatre in Palo Alto. I've decided to see them both and report back on what's what.
Wilde's last play,The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London on Valentine's Day in 1895. Just a little more than three months later, Wilde's three trials would be over and he would be in prison for "gross indecency" (the formal charge for being a homosexual, which was then illegal in England).
You would never know that the play being performed at Bus Barn was written by a man whose reputation -- for his time, anyway -- was so notorious. Despite its clever dialogue, appealingly jaundiced world view, and embrace of the absurd used to mock the rituals of high society and the wealthy, Earnest seems a creaky bit of theater in 2008. It's populated by privileged young men falling in love with costumed younger women they barely know. To insure the requisite level of on-stage antics and confusion, each man has invented a fake friend or brother to perpetuate flimsy deceptions used to woo and/or delude their female prey. The audience can see their exposure coming a mile away. In short, the play is silly, charming, fluff. Apparently Earnest is riddled with inside jokes and references that the keen 1895 theatergoer might have pieced together to discern Wilde's sexuality and private life. But in 2008, it is only one actor's uncontrollable appetite for cucumber sandwiches that raises an eyebrow.
A visible lack of said sandwiches is actually one of the many problems with the current Bus Barn production -- for the record, we are told that a fresh supply of cucumber sandwiches has just been made special for a guest, but there are so few of them on the prop serving plate that when the host devours the lot of them, we can't discern any difference in the size of the non-existent pile, which effectively kills the gag. Sandwiches aside, the play suffers from uninspired direction, melodramatic acting, implausible costumes, and a general lethargy that undermines what should be a hilarious, raucous, bawdy, and irreverent farce. My recollection is that the actors tended to stand around a lot, invariably planting themselves in pairs at the edge of the stage to recite their lines, which Wilde wrote as dialogue, directly to the audience. Ugh.
But this is Wilde, so words gallop to our rescue time and again. The fun begins with the play's first two lines, when Algernon (an overwrought Jeff Clarke, whose performance teeters on parody), rises from his piano bench and asks his butler (John Baldwin, channeling Droopy Dog) "Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?" "I didn't think it polite to listen, sir" is Lane's dry-as-dust reply. Presumably the Lane character was being sincere, if ironic, about the expectations of his position and place in society at the close of the 19th century. But in the current context, in which no creative outburst is too minor to merit its own blog or YouTube video, Lane's inattentiveness and lack of interest is refreshing.
One of the play's chief appeals is Wilde's decision to put his observations on life and art into the mouths of numerous characters, rather than just one. Thus, early on, after Earnest (terrifically played by John Romano) chides Algernon for reading the inscription on his cigarette case, Algernon replies that "More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read." Other Wilde-isms are delivered by the imperious Lady Bracknell (a stoic, bombastic Wendy Howard-Benham, whose clown makeup must have been intentional but looked for all the world like a terrible mistake). "I'm sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury. I hadn't been there since her poor husband's death. I never saw a woman so altered [wait for it]; she looks quite twenty years younger." The object of Earnest's affections delivers her share of doozies, too. Distraught by her mother, Lady Bracknell's, refusal to consent to her marriage to Earnest, Gwendolen (Shannon Stowe, who is doomed to intone her lines from within not one but two unflattering costumes) sagely notes that "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing."
Sarah Cook as Cecily has both. She takes her character seriously, inhabiting it with authenticity and wit. Romano's Earnest, whose importance literally lies in his name, does the same, perhaps because it's also his job to be Wilde's self-deprecating conscience. When Algernon tries to get deep with "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his," Earnest mockingly asks "Is that clever?" When assured by Algernon that it is, Earnest laments, "I am sick to death of cleverness... I wish to goodness we had a few fools left."
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at Bus Barn Stage Company through June 21, 2008. 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos. Tickets are $22-$32. For tickets and information visit busbarn.tix.com or call 650-941-0551.