There is just no underestimating the importance of Oscar Wilde.
As he might say, modern life would be very tedious if we didn't have his works to savor, and modern theater a complete impossibility — modern television, too, as Julian Fellowes proves every season writing for Maggie Smith's character, the delectable Dowager Countess of Grantham, on "Downton Abbey."
As much fun as it can be to try imitation, nothing ever beats the real thing, of course. And for the real thing, nothing ever tops Wilde's final play, "The Importance of Being Earnest," which opened on Valentine's Day 120 years ago in London and is currently receiving a respectable revival by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.
This "trivial comedy for serious people," as the author dubbed it, isn't foolproof. Matters of tone and style have to ring true if the world Wilde was walloping — all those essential class distinctions in speech and action, all that high moral tone and careful calculation of each societal maneuver — is to be fully felt.
And, somehow, the intricate, parallel-heavy plot about romance, identity and duplicity has to come off as totally spontaneous.
The Chesapeake production, guided with a sure sense of pacing by director Erin Bone Steele, largely succeeds at hitting those targets. Vividly costumed by Kristina Lambdin, the troupe breezes through the epigrams without turning self-conscious (accents are convincing throughout), and there is a good deal of fresh, funny stage business.
Providing a solid anchor for this "Earnest" is Joe Brack. He seems tailor-made for the role of Algernon, the perfectly cynical London gentleman who invents an "invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury" in order to slip away for fun in the country whenever he likes.
Wilde’s own voice and behavior is most present in Algernon, a connection Brack seems to appreciate deeply. Well, maybe not entirely — the night I was there, he delivered an alteration of Algernon's line at the top of Act 1 about piano-playing and sentiment, someone's attempt, I assume, to push a pun. Wilde's wit needs no improving.
Still, Brack's performance is consistently colorful; just the way he utters the name "Jack" is good for several laughs. And he reveals quite a flair for physical comedy.
As Algernon's pal with the dead-common name Jack, the country gentleman who has invented a profligate brother in order to slip away to town whenever he likes, Travis Hudson does his usual lively, assured work.
The actor is especially good at registering each fresh disappointment that unnerves the once-confident Jack, who was so foolishly certain he could easily marry Agernon's cousin Gwendolen (Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly) and continue raising an "only just 18" ward named Cecily (Lizzi Albert).
But there's Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, to reckon with first, she of the permanently raised eyebrows and checklist for worthy-of-Gwendolen bachelors — the play's juiciest role. It's tackled here by Lesley Malin. She has the requisite imperious sweep and makes her mark quite effectively in the final scene, but misses some theatrical possibilities earlier (the famous "A handbag?" line could use more impact).
Kelly captures the prim and playful side of Gwendolen with aplomb (note how she underlines the word "vibrations"), while Albert makes a thoroughly disarming Cecily. The two have great fun with the ladies' icy feud and subsequent thaw.
Lisa Hodsoll, as Cecily’s repressed governess Miss Prism, and Gregory Burgess as the local clergyman, give their scenes amusing nuance. And it's always fun to see someone prove the there-are-no-small-parts adage, which Lyle Blake Smythers deftly does in dual roles of one-step-ahead servants.
A modest set produces the requisite atmosphere and allows for smooth scene changes, and the placement of the single intermission is amusingly achieved.
All in all, a worthy reminder of Wilde's genius not only for word-play — no one has used the English language more fertilely — and sublime silliness, but also of the writer's uncanny ability to see underneath a society as woefully obsessed with surfaces as our own.