Too Earnest

Oscar Wilde gets tamed in this muted version of The Importance of Being Earnest.

The meticulous staging smartly echoes Oscar Wilde's intellectual choreography, the costumes are resplendent, the setting is tastefully appointed and the actors are eager to relish each epigram and witticism. But even though director Len Kiziuk has paid dutiful attention to the vital elements that prop up The Importance of Being Earnest, his jazz-era version somehow remains entrenched in the relaxed, sentimental style that Wilde's elegant comedy of manners intentionally trivializes.

And nowhere is that failing more apparent than in the play's pièce de résistance -- the famous Act One interview scene between the regally dismissive Lady Bracknell (Glenna Kelly) and her niece's would-be suitor, Jack Worthing (Richard Robb) -- which typically earns gales of laughter. As performed here, though, Kelly's lean, abrasive Bracknell (a part that's often played to considerable comic effect by a portly male actor costumed in endless bustles) and Robb's fumbling, lightweight Jack earn little more than a few titters and mild guffaws.

While the two-and-one-quarter-hour show, which is being presented by Way of the World Productions at the Phoenix Theatre, works well enough as a sober (and somewhat sobering) comedy, it only rarely sparkles with witty incandescence. That's mostly because Kiziuk's decision to fast-forward the action to 1928 England dulls the 1895 play's razor-sharp conflicts between stodgy Victorianism and modish aestheticism. Instead of witnessing a slightly dotty, gravely imperious woman systematically skewering a devil-may-care man about town, for instance, we're forced to watch an interrogation between hard-edged society matron and nonchalant slickster. Like most of Kiziuk and company's technically proficient efforts, the interview scene is mildly entertaining in its own right and even touches upon the playwright's underlying concern with generational differences. But the fireworks that pass between Kelly and Robb seem more darkly portentous than hysterically ridiculous. Indeed, Kelly's delivery of the glorious line "Rise from this semi-recumbent posture" sounds more like a veiled threat than a dignified gibe.

Jazzed up: Glenna Kelly and Richard Robb in  The Importance of Being Earnest.
Jazzed up: Glenna Kelly and Richard Robb in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Less homogenous -- and therefore more interesting -- are the relationships that develop between the two sets of lovers. Jack and his intended, Gwendolen Fairfax (Penny Alfrey), are an attractive, comfortably warring couple, and Jack's sidekick, Algernon Moncrieff (Guy Williams), verbally spars with him while humorously doting on Jack's ward, Cecily Cardew (Sue Niedringhaus). Although all four performers sometimes lapse into energized ribaldry instead of maintaining their grip on stylish panache -- no matter how transparently insincere the conversation -- each manages to become endearing as the show progresses. Alfrey and Niedringhaus, in particular, lend authority and refinement to the proceedings, while Williams exudes an ingratiating joie de vivre that finds fullest expression whenever a plate of food is nearby.

To be sure, the production's shortcomings are more a matter of degree and shading than incompetence. By paying strict attention to the play's period demands and shifting the performers' emphasis from forced folly to effortless delight, Kiziuk and his talented cast might yet make this ambitious endeavor as hilarious as it is charming.

 
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