A prime topic of discussion in this eventful affair, “bunburying” concerns the delicate attempt to assume another identity for purposes of avoidance. Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, the engaging, flawed friends at the heart of the breezy three-act play, revel in such behavior for laughably selfish reasons until their deception gets the best of them. But in “Earnest,” deception, fueled by mistaken identity and the folly of love, is a key ingredient to its sophisticated triviality, marvelously addressing the foolishness and hypocrisy of the upper class with such juicy lines as “he has nothing but he looks everything.” After all, Wilde, expertly dissecting the Victorian worldview of marriage and status, wouldn’t have it any other way.
As the incredibly droll and vain Algernon, a dapper cad who cannot shake a craving for cucumber sandwiches, Duante Beddingfield, benefitting from non-traditional casting, effortlessly shines in his first leading role after stealing many scenes in a featured capacity over the years. With eager assurance, Beddingfield grasps the rhythmic zingers within Wilde’s clever, tricky text, displaying sharp timing and a highbrow, sitcom-esque flair reminiscent of “Frasier.” He also astutely inhabits Algernon’s flippant, slightly off-putting personality. In fact, his appeal, which is vital, never wanes as he walks the fine line between slick and snide, particularly scoring big laughs in unexpected moments and showcasing a tender chemistry with Laura Bloomingdale as the affably daft Cecily Cardew.
Matthew Glenn, who delivered a breakthrough performance last summer in the Playhouse’s FutureFest production of “A Political Woman,” is equally strong as Jack, who has grown accustomed to living life as Ernest in the city and is particularly mystified about his upbringing. Smoothly navigating a wave of frustrated, perplexed and elated emotions from start to finish, Glenn warmly conveys Jack’s love for Algernon’s cousin Gwendolyn Fairfax (an excellent Jackie Darnell), and shows great fortitude when he finally has the upper hand against the formidable, nitpicky Lady Augusta Bracknell, Gwendolyn’s society-driven mother haughtily portrayed by Patti King.
Matthew Lindsay (Lane), Cheryl Mellen (Miss Prism), Jim Lockwood (Canon Chasuble) and Katie Wenzel (Merriman) delightfully complete the cast, who are attractively costumed by Linda Sellers and sustain proper British accents under the fluid direction of Jennifer Lockwood.
Oddly, the production’s slapdash scenic design is a disappointment, especially since the play oozes Victorian grandeur. Even so, the sheer entertainment value compensates for the visual shortcomings.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” continues through Feb. 3 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 45 minutes; Act Two: 45 minutes; Act Three: 25 minutes. Tickets are $17 for adults and $15 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 424-8477 or visit DaytonPlayhouse.org.