Jon Haynes and David Woods
in The Importance of Being Earnest
(© Tim Page)
Jon Haynes and David Woods
in The Importance of Being Earnest
(© Tim Page)
Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is surely a work of solid gold. So does it need the rather heavy-handed impasto that the British company Ridiculusmus' two-man adaptation is delivering at American Repertory Theatre? The short answer is no, although it's amusing -- at least initially -- to watch actors Jon Haynes and David Woods change hats, as well as frock coats, frocks, and voice registers, in order to play all nine characters.

The pair makes no pretense of scurrying or morphing on the sly. Indeed, virtually everything's out in the open. If anything, the two performers drag out the action to accentuate the bother involved in all this costume-changing. By the play's end, 2 ½ hours later, stripped to their undies but still retaining their spats, the pair essentially admit defeat. A tousled wig may address a hastily flourished skirt or Lady Bracknell's imposing peahen-topped hat an agglomerate of abandoned clothing.

But the question remains whether Wilde's genius is truly served by music-hall shenanigans such as having young Cecily -- whom Woods plays like Melanie Griffith on Qaaludes -- show off her self-bestowed "engagement ring" by brandishing her third finger, or letting her lewdly strip and unzip her Ernest as they innocently plight their troth? Cecily was never meant to be a slatternly bumpkin; indeed, her native wit -- which proves a worthy weapon in the face of Gwendolyn's over-cultivated wiles -- merits admiration as one of Wilde's more delightful creations.

While Woods acts as if he'd been given license to impose his own signature moves and moues on whatever role he happens to be playing, Haynes makes more of an effort to differentiate among characters and also seems to have a greater appreciation of the play's subtler conceits.

The disparity in their approaches short-circuits any tendency toward camp. Indeed, apart from a few widely spaced if egregious lapses of taste -- is it absolutely necessary that we witness Reverend Chasuble jerking off as he spies on the young lovers? -- this Earnest is basically played straight.

When all is said and done, you may find yourself wishing you'd spent the evening rereading the play, savoring the pithy epigrams that never seem to grow stale, and envisioning the characters as Wilde did. While poking gentle fun at their society-bred grotesqueries, Wilde also lingered affectionately over their essential craving for connection and continuity -- a longing with which the playwright surely identified. Indeed, a little more empathy for these silly suitors -- and even for the gorgonian Lady Bracknell -- wouldn't seem amiss in this production. In fact, it might actually allow for more humor.