If he hadn't been cremated, George Bernard Shaw would surely be rolling over in his grave.
The Irish writer and critic could not stand "The Importance of Being Earnest," which premiered at London's St. James Theatre on Valentine's Day 1895. Shaw found his friend Oscar Wilde's self-described "trivial play for serious people" to be, well, trivial and fatuous by half.
"I go to the theatre to be moved to laughter, not to be tickled or bustled into it," Shaw wrote in his review. "And that is why, though I laugh as much as anybody at a farcical comedy, I am out of spirits before the end of the second act, and out of temper before the end of the third."
Tickling and bustling is just some of what director David Ivers is all about in his fizzy production now up at the Guthrie Theater. This "Earnest," the fourth in the theater's history, is a riotous hoot for the same rib-tickling reasons my favorite sourpuss got steamed: the web of lies and deceptions, the potential christening of two adult males, the mourning of the imaginarily deceased, and the antic muffin- and sugar cube-eating.
True, the show's plentiful laughs are mostly for their own sake. But "Earnest" also has some mild social critique of the caste system that that still holds sway in so many quarters of the country and globe. Wilde lampoons the obsession with breeding and pedigree throughout the show's labyrinthine plot.
But like a soufflé, the play collapses on that point at the end, chickening out to basically affirm the same social structure that it ridiculed. Still, what fun.
Wilde has a match in wits with Ivers who, bravely, takes two intermissions for this three-act work. The director has advanced the action a decade forward to the Edwardian period when the English upper classes, swimming in the spoils of industrialization and colonial empire, are giddy with real and imaginary sport.
Dandy friends Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Doherty) and Jack Worthing (Corey Brill) like to make up relatives, including invalid Bunbury for Algernon and Earnest for Jack. These city sports, who respectively lust after Cecily Cardew (Adelin Phelps) and Gwendolen Fairfax (Helen Cespedes), have their lies catch up with them when they travel to the country in a plot twist that makes "Earnest" seem like Chekhov on Valium, with the bittersweet Russian drear giving way to woozy British cheer.
Ivers' cast finds moments to physicalize Wilde's witticisms and bon mots. Doherty is wild in Wilde. He enters shirtless after playing the piano. He sprawls this way and that on the sofa. And he handles Wilde's language with the same aplomb with which he executes some of the show's funniest bits.
Kudos also to Brill, who joined the ensemble shortly before technical rehearsals and went from 0 to 60 in a nanosecond, even if he's still working on understanding how to project his voice on the Wurtele Thrust stage. His Worthing is a deadpan straight man to Doherty's wild Algernon. Brill uses his height to excellent comic effect. And he and Doherty have great odd couple chemistry.
Phelps' Cecily is not just contemporary, she has an animalistic streak, ready to hiss or lick or purr even if the occasion warrants it or not. Hers is a gorgeously entertaining turn.
Ditto Cespedes, who is contemporary in her manners, carriage and expectations as pretentious Gwendolen.
Bob Davis' Rev. Canon Frederick Chasuble, a man of the collar who is not supposed to have manly feelings, gets into a bit of equine apoplexy in the presence of Miss Laetitia Prism. He brays to cover his erotic feelings.
Michelle O'Neill, known for trenchant dramatic roles, delivers beautifully as Prism. Hers is a ticklish, delectable performance.
But the one to take the last bows is Sally Wingert. With her performance, this Twin Cities staple is writing her name as the standard for Lady Bracknell, a woman who upholds the social order that once shunned her with diffidence, charm and winking gusto.
Her performance, like "Earnest" itself, is one to celebrate.
'The Importance of Being Earnest'
Who: By Oscar Wilde. Directed by David Ivers.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 1 p.m. Sun. with 1 p.m. matinees on select Saturdays. Ends Oct. 15.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Tickets: $29-$82. 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.