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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Importance of Being Earnest

Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that. --- Lady Bracknell

When he first arrived in the United States, Oscar Wilde told the customs official, "I have nothing to declare except my genius." One hundred and ten years after its debut, The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde's last play and his masterpiece, still waves that flag triumphantly.

Sir Peter Hall, director of this production, has always treasured the warmth and humanity in Wilde's plays and nowhere is this more evident than in his casting of Lynn Redgrave as Lady Bracknell. Usually played with an upper lip so stiff you could eat crumpets off it, Redgrave brings an exuberance and curiosity to Lady Bracknell that underlines Wilde's genius for writing character as well as aphorisms. Redgrave displays these traits on her first entrance when she almost sticks her head around the corner with a trace of girlish gawky enthusiasm before swooping down and dominating the room. Her considerable classical and comic gifts are utilized deliciously in the range she employs in sweeping from imperious tones sending Gwendolen to wait in the carriage to lower tones when she must repeat "The carriage!"

Earnest has sometimes been described as a satire on the marriage market, exemplified by the scene in which Lady Bracknell ticks off the assets of Jack Worthing (James Waterston), intent on marrying her daughter Gwendolen (Bianca Amato), and those of Cecily Cardew, Jack's ward (Charlotte Parry), sought after by her nephew Algernon (Robert Petkoff). It could equally be called a satire on the ridiculousness of image, as both Gwendolen and Cecily are obsessed with marrying a man named Ernest. "The only really safe name!" declares Gwendolen. "There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence!""sighs Cecily.

Hall never makes the mistake of rushing his characters, so that Wilde's witty lines have time to curl around the theatre before neatly giving way to the next. His zest for passion is particularly evident in the characterizations he's drawn fromof his female characters.

Beautiful Bianca Amato is a wonderfully sexy Gwendolen and Charlotte Parry an ebullient and determined teen-age Cecily. Those who've admired the comic skills of Miriam Margolyes will see a Miss Prism unlike any other. She seethes so fiercely at the sight of Canon Chausable (Terence Rigby) that it's easy to believe her passions were so immersed in the three-volume romance novel she was writing that she substituted it for the infant in the baby carriage during her day job. No matter that Canon Chausable is tall and handsome but talks like a wind-up toy who is running down. Presumably he's in another world as well. Robert Petkoff fully embodies that rascally extrovert Algernon while James Waterston not only looks earnest but makes Jack more than Algy's foil. Tall and serious, he's totally credible when he declaims his excellent reasons for doing nothing except pursue Gwendolen

James A. Stephens who plays Algernon's butler Lane and Geddeth Smith who plays Jack's butler Merriman are both slim and white-haired, projecting the image of indistinguishable family retainers with impeccable finesse. The production design is credited to Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon. The first act scene's walls are a pale green, a color popular in Victorian cameos, and the black furniture is also reminiscent of cameo design. None of the sets are cluttered with Victoriana, making them non-competitive with Wilde's vibrant characters. The exquisitely detailed costumes in delicate hues also do not fight for attention. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's sound design is especially effective when the ceiling nearly shatters in Act III.

Hall opens his play with Algy at the piano playing "Three Little Maids""(off-key!) from Gilbert & Sullivan's"The Mikado, reminding us of their popularity at that period and admiring how Wilde gleefully combined elements of their nonsense scrits with his own iridescence.

Hall's production gives Wilde's wicked irreverence its due and honors his mandate to "treat all the trivial things of life seriously and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." The splendid cast, headed by Lynn Redgrave, make this a Wilde to remember.

Editor's Note: The enduring popularity of Wilde's play, is borne out by the fact that CurtainUp has reviewed three productions in the not too distant past. The Importance of Being Earnest(Cocteau-NYC)
The Importance of Being Earnest(Aquila -NYC)
The Importance of Being Earnest/Wilde, Oscar (Shaw Festival)<

Playwright: Oscar Wilde
Director: Sir Peter Hall
Cast: James A. Stephens (Lane), Robert Petkoff (Algernon Moncrieff), James Waterston (Jack Worthing), Lynn Redgrave (Lady Bracknell), Bianca Amato (Gwendolen Fairfax), Miriam Margolyes (Miss Prism), Charlotte Parry (Cecily Cardew), Terence Rigby (Canon Chausable), Geddeth Smith (Merriman), Greg Felden (Footman).
Production Design: Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon
Sound Design: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Running Time: Two and a half hours
From 1/17/06 to 3/05/06
Theatre Royal Bath/Peter Hall Company at t he Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Phone: (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on January 25.
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