Don't let the stuffy accents and period garb fool you. Phoenix Theatre's performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest" playing this weekend at the Sheldon Theatre is an enjoyable farce that zips along to a hilarious and utterly satisfying conclusion.
Adapted from Oscar Wilde's 1895 play, "Earnest" follows bachelors Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing, played by Chris Heineman and David Oakes respectively. Algernon -- Algy for short -- is a bit of a sleaze, lounging around his London flat in a silk robe sipping liqueur. His primary profession appears to be giving terrible advice to his straitlaced friend John, who is hopelessly in love with Algy's cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax, played by Marcy Watzl.
Both men are habitual fibbers, inventing imaginary characters to use as an excuse to get out of uncomfortable social situations. Algy calls the practice "Bunburying," named after his imaginary sick friend Bunbury, who calls him away at opportune times. John's equivalent is Ernest, a scoundrel of a brother he created to provide an excuse to escape his boring country home and return to the city.
The play opens with John, overcome with emotion, proposing to Gwendolen. She accepts, but only because she believes his name to be Ernest - a name she is particularly fond of. Instead of coming clean to his soon-to-be bride, John sets off to his country home to be officially rechristened.
But when Algy learns of John's attractive and available ward, Cecily Cardew, played by Anna Ostendorf, he decides to travel to the country and pose as Ernest himself.
Hilarity thus ensues.
The institution of marriage is directly in the comedic crosshairs, with characters making every opportunity to mock its more absurd aspects. Algy, who has never been married yet fancies himself something of an expert, relates marriage to "a business," and not the pursuit of a man seeking pleasure. The women take it even less seriously, accepting marriage proposals at the drop of a hat, or, in the case of Cecily, before a proposal has even been made.
The jokes come quick and sometimes dirty in "Earnest," often delving into racy innuendo sure to make you grin. The sly wordplay is equally amusing, if not occasionally challenging to keep up with. There were chuckles and knee slapping abound in the first two acts at the premier Thursday night, but by the time act three came around the absurdity of the climax elicited an eruption of laughter.
Much credit must be given to the performances of Hieneman and Oakes, who managed to make the audience care about the play's not-so-admirable leads.
But the real show stealers are Watzl and Ostendorf as the vapid love interests with an unnatural love with the name Ernest. The women are equal parts obsessive and flighty, personifying the play's satire of gender stereotypes.
The solid supporting cast includes Helene Olson-Reed as antagonistic aristocrat Lady Bracknell, and Sara Hoffman as Cecily's airheaded governess Miss Prism. Rounding out the cast are Dan Williams and Mary Ann Valentine as mistreated waiting staff, and Greg Nixon as the questionably celibate Reverend Chasuble. All members meld well and share comfortable stage chemistry.
Minus a minor issue with the sound levels of the actors' microphones and a few opening night slipups, Thursday's performance was a clear crowd pleaser. An enthusiastic cast and devilish script make "The Importance of Being Earnest" a memorable and delightful experience.
Sidebar heads:If you go ...
What: "The Importance of Being Earnest"
Who: Phoenix Theatre
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Sheldon Theatre, 443 W. Third St.
Cost: $20.50 for adults, $13.50 for students
More info: http://www.sheldontheatre.org/