I laughed myself into a coughing fit after only fifteen minutes of the Old Globe’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. In fairness, I also cracked up over the film version where Reese Witherspoon talks like a cheeky Brit. Just reading Earnest, unembellished by actors’ talents, gives me fits. The play is that funny, which amazes in and of itself, because jokes rarely hold up. Consider the following anecdote.
A few years ago, I convinced my wife that we should watch Hot Shots: Part Deux — the 1993 sequel, starring that crazy kook with the tiger blood, to the 1991 farcical spoof of the 1986 military action drama romance starring the kook who doesn’t believe in mental illness. I had remembered watching the opening “fight” scene, which directly parodies a scene in Rambo III, and being utterly incapacitated by laughter.
So much less funny in 2015.
Earnest, on the other hand, remains hilarious despite 120 years of very mixed history. Superiority to Hot Shots: Part Deux is the least of its accomplishments.
Oscar Wilde did not merely riff on pop culture, as such jokes soon stale, he eviscerated the social norms of his day, some of which insist on remaining the social norms of our day despite five generations of successive Oscar Wildes urging us to get over ourselves. To wit, the infuriating irony of “I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them,” pronounced by the unfailingly hypocritical Algernon Moncrieff (Christian Conn), stings our collective hypocrisy over pitiful things no less now than in 1895. Ditto for the bitter truth that the “dull people” would have nothing to talk about it if not for the “clever people.” Perhaps the second maxim rings ever truer in the age of reality television and celebrity Instagram.
Then again, we’ve come a long way since Earnest. We generally eschew imprisoning gay people over their “immoral crimes”, as happened to Oscar Wilde; unless, of course, you happen to live in, say, Yemen or Saudi Arabia, where you can still get the death penalty; or Russia, where it’s technically legal to exist, but illegal to tell a child that’s OK in the cosmic scheme of things.
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” as Algernon says, and so long as that fact obtains, Earnest will be on point.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs through March 4.