Reviewed by George Basler

Let’s face it: Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest isn’t known for its plot, clever though it may be. What makes the play stand out is the playwright’s biting and witty dialogue, still sparkling 124 years after the work was first performed.

This dialogue is on full display in a Summer Savoyards production that opened this past weekend (March 23-24) at the Bundy Museum of History & Art in Binghamton. As directed by Mary E. Donnelly, the production is a capable staging of Wilde’s social satire, which casts a rather jaundiced eye on conventional love and marriage.

Although the production is a bit too sedate at times, notably in the highly stylized first act, it picks up substantially in the second and third acts, providing delightful, old-fashioned fun. Much of the credit goes to the spirited cast that does a solid job maintaining the play’s frothy tone while delivering Wilde’s memorable one-liners that continue to draw chuckles and laughs even though the Victorian age is long in the past.

Equally important, the cast, under Donnelly’s direction, is long on charm, and that’s all to the good.

The plot follows the rocky path to true love for two young gentlemen men about town: Algernon Montcrieff (Chelsea Cleary), an effete dandy, and John Worthing (Jamie Cook), a solid English gentleman. The two chums maintain fictitious personae to escape burdensome social obligations. These deceptions — both men pretend to be a man named Ernest — work fine until they go courting. Then, many humorous misunderstandings arise, all of which get worked out in the end.

Along the way, Wilde introduces a parade of comic Victorian stereotypes: a pompous clergyman, a callow ingenue. an imperious grand dame, a dithering governess and an elegantly overblown young woman of high society.

The mores may seem quaint these days, but below the surface is a rather scathing indictment of Victorian hypocrisy. Rather than preach, Wilde uses ridicule to skewer the pomposity of the so-called upper classes while hinting the only way to survive society’s constraints is to put up a false front. (Wilde, of course, knew something about putting up a false front. Married with two children, he was later imprisoned on charges of homosexuality. He is now a gay icon and considered a martyr to intolerance.)

And, of course, Wilde’s one-liners are brilliant. Some examples:

  • “If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.”
  • “The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.”
  • “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

The actors play well off each other and convincingly mimic the vocal mannerisms of their ever-so-British characters, which is not an easy task.

Cook makes a good straight man to Cleary’s more flashy performance as the insufferable, but certainly witty, Algernon. Jessica Pullis is an imposing presence as Lady Bracknell, Algernon’s aunt (a queen bee if there ever was one). Adam Ruff does a nice turn as the bumbling the Rev. Dr. Chasuble while Krista Guidici provides some laughs as the governess, Miss Prism.

Arguably, though, the two female leads provide the play’s most humorous moments. Samantha Sloma plays Cecily Cardew, Worthing’s ward and Algernon’s lady love, with just the right touch of sweetness and endearing simple mindedness. Julia Adams plays Gwendolen Fairfax with a deft mixture of haughty shrewdness and total empty-headedness. The comic interplay between the two in the second act is a highlight.

The Savoyards are primarily known for summertime performances of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. Earnest, their second annual off-season production, is a very creditable effort, particularly in the effervescent  second and third acts. The intimate setting of the Bundy was also a plus for the production as were the rather spiffy costumes designed by Adams, who doubled as Gwendolen Fairfax.

The opening night audience in the Bundy Museum annex certainly seemed to be having a good time. Cleverness can go a long way, and Earnest has that in spades.

IF YOU GO: Performances will continue this weekend at the Bundy Museum of History & Art, 129 Main St., Binghamton. Performances are at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $18 ($15 for students and seniors); seating is limited. To purchase in advance, visit The Summer Savoyards and the Bundy Museum are sharing the net profits from ticket sales;  concession and raffle proceeds will benefit the Savoyards’ July production of G&S’s The Yeomen of the Guard.