Not to put too fine a point on it, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is the greatest comedy in the English language.
If you harbor any doubt about that, you might want to consider therapy. Better yet, just head to the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, where a first-rate production of Oscar Wilde's gleaming and subversive work should persuade you.
Its namesake notwithstanding, the company frequently delves into other repertoire and has given welcome attention to Wilde over the years. With "Earnest," that means all four of the writer's best works for the stage have been produced there. "A Woman of No Importance" was first in the late 1990s.
The remainder have all been directed by Keith Baxter, who memorably guided a sumptuous production of "An Ideal Husband" in 2011. (I regret I did not catch the Baxter-led "Lady Windemere's Fan" some years before that.)
He brings to Wilde not just an appreciation for the sparkle of the language, but total conviction in the structure, the mechanics. That means no gimmicks, no pasted-on concepts, no apologies. And, in the case of "Earnest," it means we get a staging with a firm pulse and a natural, seemingly effortless flow.
The bon mots and epigrams sound as fresh as ever, popping out as if spontaneously combusted. You'd be surprised how easy it is to laugh all over again at such classics as "In married life three is company and two is none," or "Never speak disrespectfully of society ... Only people who can’t get into it do that."
Wilde never tired of skewering of everything dreadful about what passes for society (things haven't completely changed since 1895), and celebrating delightful ways to confound it. "Earnest" is the ultimate expression of all of that, and this production brings it out with elan. No wonder, given the cast.
The big news is that the role of uber-snob Lady Bracknell is played by Sian Phillips, the veteran Welsh actress who won my heart forever as the sublimely evil Livia in the brilliant BBC series "I, Claudius" way back when. But this is not a star-centric production. The whole ensemble is remarkable, the chemistry and timing spot-on.
Add in Simon Higlett's richly appointed set -- on opening night, the first sight of the country house and garden, adorned with about a billion roses, set off applause -- and Robert Perdziola's gorgeous costumes and you've got an uplifting encounter with "Earnest."
Phillips might disappoint when it comes to the delivery of the famous line, "A handbag?" (I confess a pathetic weakness for hearing those words milked shamelessly). But that's a minor matter in light of all the dynamic jolts and nuances, verbal and facial, elsewhere. Phillips is a particular delight in Act 3, when Lady Bracknell must try to sort out no end of complications. It's a pleasure just drinking in all that scrumptious acting.
Gregory Wooddell has a terrific romp as John Worthing, the man who is "Earnest" in town, "Jack" in the country. He's a lithe actor (note how perfectly he leaps onto a sofa in despair in Act 1), and he matches the physical spark with a vibrant savoring of the dialogue. One small example is the visual way he punches up the joke in: "It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn't a dentist. It produces a false impression."
The spoiled Algernon Moncrieff, he of the wicked "Bunburying" habit, is played by Anthony Roach (like Wooddell, sporting blond locks for this show, presumably to add even more color to the proceedings). The actor gives a consistently funny performance, especially when stuffing his face with muffins -- he and Wooddell both deliver the spatting lines at the close of Act 2 with mouths full, a droll touch.
Vanessa Morosco brings a neat mix of primness and quivering desire to the role of Gwendolen, Worthing's love interest. The way she drops her voice an octave or two when dishing out disdain is especially amusing. Katie Fabel's portrayal of Cecily, Worthing's ward and object of Algernon's attentions, likewise shines, with a subtle deadpan that gives Wilde's zingers a neat spin.
You couldn't ask for more in the way of distinctive characterizations than those provided by Patricia Conolly as Miss Prism, who has an awfully big secret, and Floyd King as Dr. Chasuble, who has a thing for metaphors. And Todd Scofield does such wry work as Algernon's patient servant Lane that you regret he only appears in the first act.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company production makes Wilde's "trivial comedy for serious people" a consequential experience for anyone interested in art of wit.