The Walnut Street Theatre seems a natural place to see Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," which premiered in both London and on Broadway in 1895 when the Walnut was already in its 86th season. Yet I can find no evidence on the Internet, nor in the Walnut's own book of its history, that "Earnest" — a classic and among our language's greatest comedies — played there until now.
If not, Bob Carlton's production makes up for lost time with its meticulous staging and rich design. It started off slowly when I saw it last week, like a car on a frigid day. But the engine warmed and so did its timing, and the production became funnier and funnier in its second two acts, here combined into a single second half.
In fact, the top of the first act is difficult to bring off – Wilde's recipe for the play mixes real charm with the superficial airs of Britain's Victorian upper class, and the initial minutes put its two main characters, Algernon and John, into a match of wits that allow for snarky general commentary. This spout of wit doesn't quite work at the Walnut — Daniel Fredrick, playing the sly and shameless silver spoon named Algernon, has trouble making Wilde's zingy lines seem anything but scripted, and it's difficult for Jake Blouch, as the more discreet and equally shameless character Jack, to play off that delivery.
Then Mary Martello walks onto the stage. She portrays the great character Lady Bracknell, a dragon-lady doyenne who generously grants herself stunning authority in all things. That includes bossing around her nephew Algernon and keeping her daughter Gwendolyn (Lauren Sowa) under a repressive thumb, especially when Algernon's pal Jack sends signals of woo. Martello, among the city's most electric performers, gives us a Lady Bracknell whose very stare freezes water but who's also an amusing presence, and her performance lifts the bar for everyone else. Fredrick's Algernon and Blouch's Jack become more organic, the audience begins laughing and this "Earnest" throws itself into full, funny gear.
Wilde proceeds to unveil a delicious plot of deceptions that leads, at one point, to a celebrated scene between Gwendolyn and Jack's ward Cecily (Alanna J. Smith) in a garden where the two characters use manners as masks until they just can't anymore. Here, it's a hoot.
All this is enhanced by the performances of Peter Schmitz as a preacher who adores his sermons, Ellie Mooney as a tutor with an eye for him, and H. Michael Walls and Kevin Bergen as house servants. And none of it would be as much fun to look at without Robert Koharchik's grand sets in London and the countryside and Mark Mariani's striking costumes – Martello must have fun wearing her airy floor-length dresses and a first-act hat that appears to be alive. "The Importance of Being Earnest" remains vibrantly alive, greatly outlasting the society Wilde mocked — entitled people who did nothing all day with money they probably didn't earn themselves, and who shut out anyone who did work.
The Brits themselves shut out Wilde, who was arrested for homosexuality on April 5, 1895, a month and a half after the show opened. The box office went still only weeks later – just as "The Impotance of Being Earnest" was opening on Broadway, where it's been revived eight times since.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" runs on the main stage of Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut between Eighth and Ninth Streets, though April 30. 215-574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
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