The Arvada Center's The Importance of Being Earnest keeps an old play fresh

To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance. — Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest has been such a staple for so many years, multiply staged and filmed with a host of legendary acting talents, that anyone mounting it now faces a dilemma: How do you make the play new while still respecting its integrity? How do you ensure that the humor works for a contemporary audience?

Oscar Wilde's script is wickedly clever, full of brilliant aphorisms and entirely insincere. It concerns two young men and the women they court. Neither man is called Earnest, but both women insist they could never marry anyone named anything else. So Jack and Algernon must scramble and compete to acquire that name and win sophisticated Gwendolen (Jack) and sweet little Cecily (Algy). There's a plot point concerning a baby found in a handbag at a train station, identity confusion, a couple of hilarious secondary characters and — most important — Lady Bracknell. (Please imagine the "r" rumbling like thunder as you read that name.) Lady Bracknell has been portrayed by such illustrious actors as Edith Evans, the inimitable Margaret Rutherford, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and — on Broadway last year, to rave reviews — Brian Bedford in a fortress of a dress. She is Algernon's aunt, and I think she must be the prototype for all those domineering dowagers we find in P.G. Wodehouse, the gorgons who are always either thwarting a bachelor's romantic hopes or trying to force him into marriage with a younger version of themselves.

Earnest is a soufflé, a bagatelle, an airy — though steadfastly enduring — nothing, and you don't really need to worry for a second about the characters' feelings, or whether the couples will be happily united, since their attempts at coupling are nothing but a game anyway. In fact, Cecily tells Algernon on their first meeting that she's been in love with him for months already — based on her belief that he is Earnest. The men's greatest battle is over who will get the last muffin on the table, and the women's weapons of choice are drawled insults, along with teacups and cake. Wilde was taking a rapier to the manners and mores of Victorian society, but naturally, being an aesthete and preferring artifice to sincerity, he did it in high style.

Director Rod A. Lansberry keeps things lively and entertaining in this Arvada Center production, inspiring regular gusts of laughter from the audience and sending a few people dancing up the aisles at intermission to the perfectly chosen Gilbert and Sullivan music. Scott Bellott carries the role of Jack Worthing with aplomb, despite a couple of truly awful costumes — a ghastly checked jacket that makes him look much shorter and squarer than he is, and another, worn later, that seems made of leftover deck-chair fabric. Only in his perfectly tailored fake mourning clothes is he the elegant Victorian gentleman he should be. As Algernon, Jake Walker isn't served much better by the costumer, his second-act suit dissected by a crisscross of body-shortening brown bands. Walker is a rather elfin Algernon, becoming perhaps a little too self-consciously so as the evening progresses. Bev Newcomb-Madden makes Lady Bracknell properly thick-headed and conceited, but her timing was a little off in the last act — an act that should have absolutely belonged to her.

From the slithery, arrogant way Kate Berry comports herself, we know Gwendolen will eventually be a carbon copy of Lady B., her dragon mother, while Billie McBride and Colin Alexander do well as Miss Prism and the Reverend Canon Chasuble. Jeremy Sortore and Mark Rubald both play servants — small roles that are usually given to less-experienced actors but shouldn't be, because they're very easy to mess up — and their performances are so impeccable that you often find yourself watching their faces as they stand deferentially in the background, noting the occasional raised eyebrow or wry twitch of the lip. Best of all is Caitlin Wise as Cecily: The role is as paper-thin and artificial as all the others, but Wise gives it so much bounce, playfulness and innocence that she freshens every scene she's in.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman