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The Importance of Being Earnest

Lyric Stage Company of Boston

May 9 to June 7

Has Victorian humor survived the past century?

It certainly appeared to Friday, May 9 as the audience rolled with laughter on opening night of the Lyric Stage Company’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

This classic British comedy of manners by Oscar Wilde has become famous for its witty, snappy language, comedic romances, and hysterically funny characters. Yet this play is also a biting satire of British society in the 1890s and is still recognizable as such today.

The show had an excellent cast with Lewis D. Wheeler’s Algernon and Ed Hoopman’s Jack complementing each other perfectly. Both fine actors, Wheeler emphasized the lightness of Algy’s character while Hoopman balanced him with a believable earnestness.

Bobbie Steinbach added a new twist to Lady Bracknell’s famous “Handbag” scene. In it, she began shaking with horror and shock and came close to a fit during her “A handbag!?!?” line.

Steinback departed Act 1 — her last line forbidding her daughter “to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel” — with even more force, built-up shock, and horror. Although unique, the overall effect felt like over-acting and added a sour note to the otherwise splendid scene. All was forgiven, however, in Act 3 as Steinbach closed the show with a superb performance.

Hannah Barth, who played Gwendolen, had a superb sense of comic timing, which brought the audience to the floor during the proposal scene. But she ruined it all by over-sexualizing Gwendolen’s character and overstepping the Victorian bounds of propriety as she constantly kissed Jack’s neck during the proposal. (This is especially striking because the rest of the show remained true to the period.) Although probably a directorial decision, this scene left a lasting stain on the audience’s perception of Barth’s performance, which was never completely erased by the following acts.

Jessica Grant, as Cecily, felt a little “off” compared to the rest of the company. Her acting was good enough, yet somehow she never sparkled the same way the other players did.

The technical elements of the show offset any foibles of the acting or directing. A creative set design allowed for easy transitions between the three different scenes, while still allowing each scene to look natural.

Set Designer Brynna Bloomfield paid meticulous attention to period detail. The first act was almost entirely mauve, a fad in England at the time, with popular wallpaper designs from the 1890s. (In fact, the library for Act 3 had a William Morris wallpaper design.)

The costumes were also excellent. While being completely true to the period — the men wandered around with spats on their shoes and the women’s dresses had the mandatory bustle — the costumes went a step further in adding to the interpretation of Wilde’s play. In the final scene, Lady Bracknell, dressed in a deep purple that contrasted sharply with the light, summery outfits of the rest of the actors, storms into the country estate like a black thundercloud intent on ruining a perfect day.

As with many productions of The Importance of Being Earnest, the director, Spiro Veloudos, presented a period production without any major cuts or additions to the script, but his vision for the show did shine through in his elegant blocking. The couples were often placed at mirrored corners of the stage, balancing each other while creating delicious symmetry. As the actors moved around the stage in mirrored motions, the audience was reminded of the inherent location and character symmetries in Wilde’s work.

But, at times, Veloudos’s desire to maximize the utility of the thrust stage used by the production led to unusual, and often distracting, blocking configurations. In the long dialogues between Jack and Algernon, the actors paced around the small stage, hopping up and sitting down periodically in different chairs for different views of the audience. The direction felt awkward, as the motion distracted from the vitality of the characters’ dialogue and added nothing to the scene.

Perhaps the subtlest, but most interesting, directorial addition to the show was in the opening of the third act. Algernon and Jack entered the study nonchalantly, whistling a catchy tune, heard long before they themselves are seen entering: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore” from H.M.S. Pinafore. The song, which rebukes class rank and social standing in favor of marriages for love, adds a dimension to the marriages set at the end of the play. In The Importance of Being Earnest, love does not level all ranks, and the “happy” marriages are only ultimately achieved with the incentives of monetary and social gain.

The inclusion of “Never Mind the Why and Wherefore” added a clever twist to the play, and fit nicely in a production that allowed the flourishes of Wilde’s script to shine through.