The key to The Importance of Being Earnest, as with so many comedies from the past, is to play it straight. The comedy is in the writing rather than the performance. Algernon and Jack are written to believe the inane things they say, they are also written to believe the brilliant things they say, and it is their belief in who they are, silly as that may be, that makes them genuinely funny. It is the genius of Wilde: to make us believe that his characters believe in themselves. But when the people restaging Wilde don’t believe that his characters believe, when they don’t believe in the characters themselves, they wind up being too silly by far. (e.g. they have Algernon prance around in plate mail armor while wooing Cecily).
Yep, playing comedy for laughs is a mistake. Comedy is a serious business, and when it is performed seriously it is vastly funnier than comedy performed foolishly. The laughs will come, they don’t need to be shopped for.
So if you ever have a chance to see The Importance of Being Earnest onstage, I hope that you find a group of performers who are playing it seriously, delivering the jokes with the conviction that Jack and Algy should have rather than delivering the jokes as jokes. If you do the time it was written, the distance between now and then won’t matter one wit. You’ll see a comedy as fresh and relevant and genuinely funny as anything being written today — and The Importance of Being Earnest will forever be one of your favourites. I promise