by Hugh Hunter
Old Academy Players in East Falls opened its season last weekend with a revival of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Fueled by Oscar Wilde’s legendary wit, the play was acclaimed even at its premiere in 1895. It achieves its purpose of satirizing Victorian propriety and winds up doing much more.
The story is as simple as it gets. Two gallants, Algernon and Jack, both assume the false identity of Earnest so they can lead double lives, one in town and one in the country. Director Carla Childs handles the set shifts cleanly and scores big in her casting and direction of the major characters.
Joel Dickerson stars as the dismissive Algernon. This gay and aristocratic freeloader is never at a loss for words and always with a caustic wit. (“Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”—Algernon)
Gil Johnson is excellent as Jack. Some productions have Jack vying with Algernon in a sort of contest as to who can be the most supercilious. We do better here. Although he connives, Johnson’s Jack is also sincere and a needed contrast to the happy self-assurance of everyone else.
Amber Marie Payne plays Gwendolyn, Jack’s love interest who likes to think she is naughty, and actress Payne is full of mischievous animation. Yet Gwendolyn really shares her mother’s sense of position in the world, underscored by their similar dress (costumes by Helga Krauss and Ginny Kaufmann).
Laura Seeley is endearing as Cecily, the love interest of Algernon. Sweet and primly untroubled in her flowing garb, Cecily comically invents her life in the diary she keeps. (Here and elsewhere, Wilde takes a swipe at storytellers.)
Finally, Dale Mezzacappa seems born to play Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn’s mother. With her Victorian propriety, she intends to put a stop to all this fun and romance. Yet Mezzacappa’s Bracknell is also redoubtable and has a sense of humor that blurs the line between wit and malapropism.
All ends well with the comical conversion of Lady Bracknell to the wishes of the young folks. (The same cannot be said for Wilde himself. He soon fell victim to the Victorian morality he lampooned and was prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality, which led to his premature death.)
The notion of a “classic” can be tossed about too freely, but “Earnest” really does have a special place in the theater canon. Mistaken identity has been a staple of farce since Plautus used it 2,200 years ago, but here the use of mistaken identity is so uniquely playful that “Earnest” makes a farce out of farce.
Similarly, with events like the lost handbag of Miss Prism (Lauri Jacobs), Wilde laughs at all the ludicrous coincidences storytellers come up with solely to advance the plot. So even as it satirizes the Victorian world, “Earnest” takes the art form that specializes in laughing at our foolishness and laughs at comedy itself.
Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane.”The Importance of Being Earnest” will run through Oct. 6. Reservations available at 215-843-1109.