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Oscar Wilde’s Earnest a perfect pick-me-up

By Tobi Cohen on October 27, 2014

There’s a reason why The Importance of Being Earnest has stood the test of time – it’s freakin’ hilarious and it doesn’t matter if it’s 1895 or 2014.

Sure, Shakespeare’s plays are some 300 years older than this Oscar Wilde comedy which is part of the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre series. But let’s be honest, most of us would probably enjoy The Merchant of Venice or King Lear far more if we scanned Cole’s Notes or Wikipedia before taking our seats.

Earnest, on the other hand, is accessible, clever, witty and as, if not more relevant today than it was when it opened at the close of the 19th Century – even if, as artistic director Jillian Keiley suggests, it may no longer “serve its original purpose.

“It’s ironic that the script, which was a blatant assault on the Establishment of Wilde’s time, has actually become the Establishment of our times,” she wrote in a note included in the evening’s program.

Between Rob Ford, Lindsay Lohan and the Real Housewives of (insert glamorous city here), she may be right. But pray, my dear readers, who cares.

It still pokes fun at many of the same gender stereotypes and social taboos that persist today. It also toys with the timeless tradition of pretending to be somebody we are not.

A brief synopsis for those not familiar with the story: The Importance of Being Earnest tells the tale of two friends, Algernon (Alex McCooeye) and Jack (Christopher Morris) who, unbeknownst to one another, take on alter egos as a means of escaping their proper lives to sew their wild oats.

As his alter ego Earnest, Jack falls in love and proposes to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (Amy Matysio). The conniving Algernon learns of his friend’s double life in the country as the guardian of a young lady, Cecily (Natasha Greenblatt), who had long daydreamed about Earnest whom she believed was Jack’s bad-ass rebel brother from the city.

Christopher Morris, Amy Matysio. Photo by Andree Lanthier.

Christopher Morris, Amy Matysio. Photo by Andree Lanthier.


In a bid to woo Cecily, Algernon arrives at Jack’s country home while he’s away pretending to be Earnest. When all four wind up in the same place at the same time, the cat is out of the bag which leads to all sorts of shenanigans, including much cake throwing and stumbling over ottomans.

There is also a crotchety manservant named Lane (Herbie Barnes), a drunken butler Merriman (David Warburton), a domineering mother Lady Bracknell (Karen Robinson), a not so prudish governess Miss Prism (Lois Anderson) and Rev. Canon Chasuble (Andrew Moodie), a man of God who could hardly contain his crush on the governess.

This play has likely been reviewed hundreds if not thousands of times and far be it for me to tell Mr. Wilde how he might have improved upon this particular work – his last before he was imprisoned when his own alter ego as a homosexual was revealed.

So let any further remarks thus focus on this latest NAC performance.

Montreal born McCooeye stole the show as Algernon. He delivered Algy’s quick-witted banter, clever double entendres and funny one-liners brilliantly. The tall, lanky actor had the audience in stitches when he jumped into the arms of his beloved Cecily – rather than the other way around – and they tumbled to the ground in a mess of slapstick hilarity.

Meanwhile, Jamaica born Robinson was a formidable Lady Bracknell. Staring straight ahead, unblinking, the feathers and bows piled atop her fashionable Victorian hat danced as she delivered her delightfully sarcastic retorts.

While Greenblatt as Cecily, was a little shaky, the cast overall was bang on with their fast talking dialogue, the sets were à propos and the period costumes were perfect.

Unfortunately, there were many empty seats at Thursday’s preview performance. Hopefully that will change. After last week, Ottawa could sure use a laugh.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs until November 8th at the National Arts Centre. Click here for tickets.