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Theater Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

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The problem with being popular is that too many people know you. And that is much the case with the Ahmanson’s production of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Directed by Sir Peter Hall and presented by the Theatre Royal Bath/Peter Hall Company in conjunction with the Center Theatre Group, the production values are top notch yet the play suffers from the audience’s familiarity. The actors during the first few scenes had to enunciate their lines over the appreciative laughter of the opening night crowd—laughter that began before the punch lines were completely delivered. Whatever timing the actors and Hall were striving for was lost.

Hall uses color to punctuate the shift between Act I, which is set in London, with the country (Acts II and III). Kevin and Trish Rigdon’s production design makes Algernon Moncrieff’s home a muted affair of grays and brown with a slight purplish tone for relief. Algernon and his friend, Ernest, also wear mousy dull colors. Such blandness seems contrary to Algernon’s whimsical character yet causes the women to seem like soft spring breezes when the colors of their costumes relieve the dour grayness.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Algernon (Robert Petkoff) discovers his friend, Ernest Worthing (James Waterston), leads a double life. In London, he’s a happy-go-lucky swell called Ernest, but in the country, he becomes Jack, the stern, upright guardian of a young girl, Cecily (Charlotte Parry). He tells her of his younger brother, Ernest, who is always getting in trouble in town.

Conversely, Algernon, has an imaginary friend, Bunbury, who, being rather sickly, is always on the verge of death—most conveniently when Algernon might otherwise have to spend dinner with his boorish aunt, Lady Bracknell (Lynn Redgrave). Jack as Ernest is in love with Lady Bracknell’s daughter, Gwendolen (Bianca Amato) but Lady Bracknell’s sense of propriety—Jack’s unknown parentage–prevents their marriage.

Algernon decides to visit Cecily, pretending to be Ernest. Gwendolen also arrives at Jack’s country home. The set design blossoms into pastel yellows and pinks at Jack’s country house and the play also picks up some color, most notably in polite cattiness between Amato’s Gwendolen and Parry’s Cecily when they both discover they are engaged to an Ernest Worthing.

Petkoff and Waterston seem overly eager, even earnest as they attempt to finish utterances before the audience’s laughter begins. Redgrave is commanding as the dim but demanding guardian of social correctness. Amato and Parry are particularly good in their portrayals of two young women building a social construct as the future keepers of society and the hearts of their young men. As Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism, Miriam Margolyes adds tension by the mere tightness of her corset on her ample body. It threatens but doesn’t explode into a wardrobe malfunction.

Hall’s production doesn’t sparkle with flashes of wit and illumination, but glows with bonhomie and indulgence.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” continues until March 5 at Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m.at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Downtown. $35-$75. Call (213) 628-2772.

–Originally published in the Pasadena Weekly

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