But the lesson was clear: You don't mess with perfection. If Wilde's intent was to spoof the kinds of Victorian melodramas and comedies of manners that were the order of the day as the 19th century barreled into the 20th, he miscalculated by creating the funniest comedy of manners imaginable, spoof or not. Granted, in the world of 1895, when the play premiered in London, there was a lot to make fun of regarding the intricate transactions surrounding the marriage pact when the person mattered less than the social standing or the land holdings or dollars invested in the fund.
But Wilde also threw perfectly constructed farce (minus the door slamming) into the mix and a healthy dose of self-parody to make it really interesting. A sturdy production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" makes it all look effortless, as the laughs never stop rolling and the play hums along like the expertly calibrated comedy machine that it is.
Stanford Summer Theater kicks off its 15th season — a festival called "He's Funny That Way" featuring Wilde and Samuel Beckett plays, symposia, a film series, etc. — with a well-tuned "Earnest" directed by Lynne Soffer, who is also the Bay Area's go-to dialect coach. So as you can imagine, every syllable is as crisp as can be, and there's no trouble hearing every one of Wilde's pithy bon mots spoken in surprisingly good British accents.
Perhaps Sofer's great accomplishment here is casting actors with mostly crackling good chemistry. Of course there are the two central romantic couples, but where the chemistry really energizes the play is between friends Algernon and Jack and rivals/besties Gwendolen and Cecily.
Stanford undergrads Austin Caldwell as Algernon and David Raymond as Jack bring a robust energy to their scenes, and each fairly drips with British upper-class privilege. If they're a few years too young to be completely believable as men in their late 20s, it hardly matters when they're able to wring laughs from exchanges like this:
Jack: You don't think there is any chance of Gwendolen becoming like her mother in about 150 years, do you, Algy?
Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.
It's a perfect set-up and delivery, but then Wilde takes it one level further, as Jack becomes an even more perfect straight man, positioning Algernon for the proverbial slam dunk.
Jack: Is that clever?
Algernon: It is perfectly phrased! And quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.
Jessica Waldman brings sweetness edged with lacerating single-mindedness to Cecily, an 18-year-old with a plan (why else would she be keeping a diary filled with fiction but for eventual publication?), and Ruth Marks nearly steals the show with her charm and domineering personality as Gwendolen. It's very clear in Marks' astute performance that she will grow up to be exactly like her imperious mother, Lady Bracknell, who might even make the Dowager Countess at Downton Abbey quake in her tightly laced boots.
Played by Courtney Walsh, this Lady Bracknell is a tower — literally, as this is a tall actor made taller by costumer Connie Strayer's divine hats — of societal propriety. With her booming voice and ever-arching eyebrows, she is not only a scene stealer but also a play stealer, and all without chewing the scenery as some Lady Bracknells are prone to do.
You could forgive her for taking bites of the scenery because the designs by Erik Flatmo are, in a word, delicious. "Earnest" is very much a period piece (which is why TheatreWorks' updating of it to the '60s fizzled), and Flatmo goes all out to create sumptuous settings for Algernon's London townhouse, drowning in rich fabrics and bachelor excess, and the light, airy gardens and manor house of Jack's Hertfordshire estate (the lovely lighting is by Michael Ramsaur).
In supporting roles, Don DeMico nabs laughs as two butlers, one so inured to his employer he's barely conscious and one so stooped from work he can barely walk. Marty Pistone is an affably dopey Rev. Chasuble, a country rector more prone to ego than spirituality, and Kay Kostopoulos is a bright but nervous Miss Prism, a tutor with a past. One delightful feature of Kostopoulos' performance is the bouncing of the tight ringlets spilling from her head when she speaks excitedly (which is most of the time).
There are a few bumps here and there, and the comedy machine misses a beat or two, but the real pleasure from this "Earnest" is its confidence. Director Sofer and the actors trust the play enough not to try and make it funny by pushing too hard. That means the audience gets to sit back and enjoy actors being earnest about everything but actually being earnest. It's Wilde's great irony and part of what makes the play so smart and so foolish at the same time.
Next up for Stanford Summer Theater: another Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett and his "Happy Days," although in the afterglow of "Earnest," it's hard to imagine happier theatrical days than this.
What: "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, presented by Stanford Summer Theater
Where: Pigott Theater, Memorial Auditorium, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford
When: Through Aug. 11 with 8 p.m. shows Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Cost: Tickets are $15-$25.
Info: Go to sst.stanford.edu or call 650-725-5838.