The stars seemed aligned this season for a fascinating reconsideration of The Importance of Being Earnest - largely because the Publick just closed a rambunctious version of Travesties, Tom Stoppard's clever repurposing of the play as modernist critique. A return trip to the source material could have been brilliant - a kind of cooperative doubling unknown between local theatre companies, with the two productions orbiting each other like opposed artistic twins (rather in the manner of the play's separated-at-birth siblings, Algernon and Jack).
Alas, that didn't happen - even though the productions actually share an actor (Dafydd Rees). This Earnest, however, makes no pretense to exploring the play's philosophical underpinnings; of what Stoppard was talking about, the Lyric has no clue. To director Spiro Veloudos, Oscar Wilde's masterpiece is simply an arch little farce, perfect in its architecture; it earnestly pursues its laughs, and no more. Not that there's anything wrong with that - and to be honest, Veloudos has never shied away from intellectual challenge (indeed, in between Man of La Mancha and This Wonderful Life he's programmed more genuinely avant theatre than the ART). Still, even if it nails its laughs, the production feels like an opportunity lost; it could have been so much more.
And, truth be told, even as a traditional retelling of Oscar Wilde's masterpiece, it's not all that memorable or subtle. Veloudos is smart, but tends to paint with a broad brush, while Earnest is etched with show-queen precision. And his young cast sends off exactly the "vibrations" (to quote the play) one might expect: they're to this manner neither born nor bred, and are doing their best to simulate it after two weeks' rehearsal. That they manage it at all is to be applauded; their accents are mostly in place, their poise carefully maintained; they're all talented and will go far. But no one who's seen a truly polished Importance of Being Earnest would ever be convinced by them.
On the other hand, if you've never seen Earnest, this will probably strike you as a revelation - in the same way that Vanya on 42nd Street stunned so many film reviewers with its depth. The atmosphere may not be there, but the jokes all are, and the production moves like clockwork (sometimes in a mode unconsciously like the mechanically-played scene between Gwendolyn and Cecily in Travesties). There's only one piece of problematic casting - as the Wilde factotum Algernon Moncrieff, Lewis Wheeler does his flat-out best, but he's still a little flat because he's simply not, at bottom, a bemused bon vivant, no matter how hard he tries. And as solid-citizen, straight-arrow Jack Worthing, Ed Hoopman deploys a sonorous speaking voice, but not much more until the last act, when he finally loosens up and has a little fun. The women fare slightly better - as Gwendolyn, Hannah Barth has the right romantic, daffily alienated sexual presence, but sometimes seems unsteady in her attack; meanwhile the more-assured Jessica Grant makes an appealingly straightfoward Cecily, but could use an ounce more inner mischief.
It's in the older generation that the production sparkles a bit. Beth Gotha makes an amusingly ditzy Miss Prism, and Bobbie Steinbach (above, with Wheeler and Grant) works her usual magic with Lady Bracknell. Steinbach isn't physically imposing enough, perhaps, to command the stage (Bracknell should be a real dragon, or maybe even a dragoon), but her command of the lines - many of which by now are dauntingly iconic - is witty and confidently low-key; she knows the way to land Wilde's insane circumlocutions is with impeccable dignity.
Alas, Steinbach's delivery sometimes reminds one of what might have been, if Veloudos had risked something a bit more surreal, rather than the Lyric's usual suburban naturalism. Earnest endures, of course, not just because of its witticisms but also because of its strange sense of size and weird hints at philosophical depth. Veloudos may understand that Wilde's homosexuality, and "double life," is reflected in the play (let's not parse "bunburying" too closely), but he doesn't seem to understand how it's reflected. To Wilde, as to any gay man, of course, the heterosexual norms of society seem utterly arbitrary - it was his brilliant intuition to take this insight and run with it (in earnest, as it were) in Earnest. Everyone's logic in the play is impeccable; but their premises are absurd. Indeed, Wilde pushes this far past any gay perspective - which is why turning Earnest into a drag show doesn't feel quite right, either. After all, Wilde skewers Eros, too, and utterly: Gwendolyn can only hit her G-spot with the name "Ernest," for instance, which seems ridiculous until you consider how the rest of us do it - with blonde hair, or big boobs, or extremities cut or uncut: all ridiculous conditions, and no more absurd than the desire for a certain Christian name. This utterly free perspective, of course, is why Earnest, which perhaps begins modernism in the drama, could also be turned inside out by Stoppard to critique modernism, and why, in a way, the play supersedes the mode it engendered. I suppose it's a bit much to ask a small company like the Lyric to capture all that onstage; still, I can dream, can't I?