Oscar Wilde was a world-class wit, back when such a term seemed more relevant, and he lived just 46 years until his early death in 1900. A poet and playwright, he's someone whose canon of published and staged works doesn't live on and endure so much as, well, the things he said and wrote in the form of quips and observations. In that way, you could say his across-the-pond equivalent was more or less Mark Twain, or a couple generations later, Dorothy Parker.
But amid his observations, articles and epigrams, Wilde penned a couple of well-remembered plays and it's the general consensus that 1895's The Importance of Being Ernest was the best. Now on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, its enduring power as a classic of farcical comedy shines on. Ernest aims a great dart right at the upper English classes as the Victorian era was about to give way to a more modern era, although to watch some of the characters' lives and machinations, you might think they wouldn't know modern life if it stood up in their soup.
At the play's start, we meet London young men Algernon (Matthew Khonach) and his best mate Ernest (Steven Santos). Ernest has made the decision to propose to Algernon's cousin Gwendolyn (Megan Hughes) and while the two men talk and bicker, it comes to light that they have similar deceptions at work to keep them able to negotiate the social codes of the era. Ernest goes by Jack when out in the country, telling those that he's deceiving that he has a younger brother named Ernest back in London. Algernon has a similar bit of shadiness going on, although it's an even lazier one. He claims to have an invalid friend named Bunbury out in the country, and he uses this fiction to get out of any social obligation he's not up for.
Jack/Ernest proposes marriage to Gwendolyn, and while she gives him a semi-enthusiastic yes, her mother Lady Bracknell (a great George Inotowok) really doesn't like anything about his background and bearing, and so that matter is thrown into peril. Now, for the second act, might a crafty Algernon head to the country to woo Jack's young ward Cecily (Amelia Resendez) pretending to be Ernest, Jack's made-up brother? And might Jack also show up in mourning, pretending that his made-up brother Ernest has just died? Well, yes and yes. And to tell you more wouldn't be fair because it just keeps getting better from there.
The Importance of Being Ernest falls squarely under the theatrical genre of farce, and yet it really can't be pigeonholed that way. The classic French farcical stories and plays of a few centuries ago, like The Liar, Tartuffe and Candide, are indeed rife with deceptions of identity and the like, and by the 20th century branched into such subgenres as door-slamming farce with people racing into and out of closets to conceal chicanery from being revealed while audiences howled. Ernest has some of that and is hilarious with little letup, but you might say where all those styles of farce run hot, it rather runs cool. Its satire of details of the era — concern with family lineage, marrying into money, class standing and how the smallest detail, whether one of deception or honesty, can upend all else on the turn of a schilling, has its sharp comedy knives out here much more than slamming doors or hiding in the bureau.
Ernest's three-act structure is punchy and doesn't overload the good material in one place or another, and there's a timelessness in Wilde's work. Director Ruth Engelke keeps things going at a good clip. Hughes as Gwendolyn hits the right notes in a part that requires a lot of comic variations, Khonach as Algernon handles a great comic role without overdoing it and Inotowok as Lady Bracknell has a dream role to play, but takes it to a new level and gets all the best lines in the show ("Indeed, no woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.")
Wilde, like a few other truly great wits, left the world a little too soon, although he left behind a good body of work, as well as some great bon mots he either said or at least was said to have said. Plus, in The Importance of Being Ernest he left a play whose title truly does have the best double meaning of any other work I can recall, and that's something.
The Importance of Being Ernest plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Aug. 4 and also Thursday, Aug. 2, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on July 22 and July 29. For more information, call 442-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.