Reviewed by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD
The Pittsburgh Savoyards commence their 85th season with director Marsha Mayhak‘s crisp, spitfire production of Oscar Wilde‘s 1895 comedic classic, The Importance of Being Earnest.
The production opens with the housekeeper, Miss Lane (Apryl Peroney), entering the drawing room. She plucks her AirPods from her ears moments before her employer, Algernon Moncreiff (Adam Seligson), comes in, inquiring if she heard him playing the piano. Peroney is consistently masterful with the subtlety of her facial expressions with a twitch of the eyebrow. The AirPods are an unexpected jolt. Mayhak’s clever prop choice immediately bridges Wilde’s 19th century with our 21st while symbolically speaking to the fact that blocking out one’s superior is an action that transcends time. Mayhak also signals this production will be a modern interpretation, preparing us to look for other Easter eggs throughout the show.
Despite being lower class, Lane’s dry humor floats past the self-involved Algernon as she mutters “and a pint” as she tipples from her flask while he laments that eight bottles of champagne were consumed at his most recent dinner party. Peroney is witty in her analytical breakdown of the high-quality wine purchased by bachelors vs. the gut rot of married couples. Wilde suggests the ways in which we want to impress people are guided by our relationship status, and once one has secured the proverbial fish, the bait quality standards shift. Mayhak manifests Algernon’s restless ennui by having Seligson utilize the full range of the compact stage, even after the arrival of his friend, Jack Worthing (Sean Lenhart). Seligson flops heavily on the mini-fainting couch, his legs dramatically swinging over the side; walks over to chain eat the cucumber sandwiches Miss Lane delivered; and strides to the bar cart to imbibe – a visual representation of the trifecta of vapid pursuits of the privileged.
Algernon and Jack spend much of the play in splendid repartee. Seligson and Lenhart banter without overpowering each other, proving a wise casting match by Mayhak. The pairing extends to physical comedy; they ridiculously battle over a platter of muffins at one point. Seligson stuffs his mouth with muffins yet somehow enunciates clearly, spewing muffin bits as he agitates. Lenhart backs up and disdainfully swipes muffin splatter from his face, and Lenhart’s pointedly exaggerated reaction is both relatable and laughter-generating.
Romantic couplings are at the heart of the play. Lady Augusta Bracknell (Ell Connally) is most interested in securing a good match for her daughter, Gwendolyn (Amy Dick). Gwendolyn clearly outmatches Jack in wit and intelligence, and Amy Dick isn’t afraid to make Gwendolyn a powerhouse as she boldly instructs Jack at various points. Gwendolyn’s modernity is a foil to her mother, who’s a stereotypical society lady concerned with appearances who loves to pontificate. Mayhak has Connally perfectly lean into the role by consistently overexaggerating her pronunciation. At one point, she poses with her hands in perfect teacup holding position, pinky finger extended, signaling both impatience and expectation as she awaits Algernon’s tea delivery. Cecily (Anna Gergerich) is freshly 18 and under Jack’s guardianship. Cecily’s sheltered youth is reinforced by costumer Megan Kelly‘s choice of a pale pink satin dress trimmed with white lace. Gergerich struggles with adding nuance beyond coy side-eye to elevate her character beyond naïvete.
Like any great work of art, The Importance of Being Earnest transcends time. Wilde’s now most famous play premiered on Valentine’s Day in 1895, fittingly ironic for a play about romance’s intricacies – and deceptions. Marriage proposals that happen within minutes foreshadow today’s reality shows like Married at First Sight. Lady Bracknell herself could be pitching such a reality show when she argues against long engagements quipping, “They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.” More seriously, towards the end of the play, Jack asks, “Why should there be one law for men and another for women?” With debates on reproductive rights raging and creating familial schisms in the wake of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, Wilde’s writing feels as relevant and pointed today as it did 127 years ago.
Note: This review reflects the casting for Sunday, July 17th. The Importance of Being Earnest runs through July 30th at the Pittsburgh Savoyards headquarters in Bellevue, PA. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit https://www.pittsburghsavoyards.org/wordpress/the-importance-of-being-earnest-2022/.