The current production of The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Victor Pappas for Seattle Shakespeare Company, is a master class in Quinn Franzen’s eyes. The rosy-cheeked young actor merrily glides through his performance as Algernon, a witty and carefree rascal, like he’s acting on ice skates, pausing only to gaze at the audience with sly bedroom eyes whenever he says anything particularly clever. In a different play, this would be too much, but it’s a shrewd move on the director’s part, underscoring the self-awareness that makes Earnest tick.
Seen from a distance, Earnest’s status as a classic might seem a little improbable. Every piece of the script, taken individually, is a cliché of a cliché, flat types who existed long before Wilde’s time: the rakish Algernon, his lovelorn and comparatively boring pal (Jack Worthington), the imperious old rich bitch (Lady Bracknell), the moony girl waiting for someone to sweep her off her feet (Cecily), even the daft old country parson (Rev. Chasuble). They all seem like cut-rate knockoffs from Jane Austen, but when Wilde bundles them together and stitches them up with his glorious one-liners—“relations are simply a tedious pack of people who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die”—the old clichés become both fresh and timeless. They’re shipping containers for Wilde’s enormous inventory of sharp jokes.
This Earnest succeeds so marvelously because it winks, as Wilde winks, at the outrageousness of his literary heist. Franzen makes eyes at the audience; Connor Toms plays Jack with clownish, foot-stamping sincerity; and Kimberly King as Lady Bracknell is a hair-trigger indignation machine, the absurdly tall feathers in her hat trembling like the needle on a seismograph, telegraphing the earthquakes that are always just about to erupt. The men’s love interests compliment the craziness: Hana Lass is zippy and emotionally unpredictable as Algernon’s sweetheart Cecily and Emily Grogan as Jack’s aristocratic, beloved Gwendolen is as deeply, profoundly vacuous as the play itself. The set and costume designers (Carey Wong and Melanie Burgess) get in on the act with their richly upholstered furniture, silver tea paraphernalia, ascots, slippers, velvet curtains, and cherry blossoms jutting out of Chinese vases—the stage looks like a meticulous wedding cake just begging to be smashed.
Wilde’s comedy is based on the fact that people are both arbitrary and foolish. So is his tragedy—a few short years after Earnest was first performed, Wilde would be humiliated and imprisoned, writing his jailhouse poetry: “… all men kill the thing they love/By all let this be heard/Some do it with a bitter look/Some with a flattering word.” But Pappas and his crew skewer their faults so knowingly and lovingly we still laugh, despite the prickly, unsettling feeling that we’re actually laughing at our own.