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The Importance of Being Expectant

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Last summer I has the opportunity to see Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at the legendary Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the city of the playwright's birth.

It was a novel production, one which treated the whole work as a sort of memory of the aging, exiled Wilde looking back on his lost fame. Also, all of the parts--even the great Lady Bracknell-- were played by men.

In other words, it was just the sort of directorial nonsense that Wilde's masterful comedy has no need for.

Thankfully, the new production of Earnest, which opened last night at the Music Center, has no directorial mucking about--which allows Wilde's own nonsense to be enjoyed on its own terms.

Veteran director Peter Hall delivers a straightforward staging that's unafraid of big laughs--but never cheapens the material to get them.

If there is anything clever about Hall's staging it's that the three sets look suspiciously modeled after the interior of L.A.'s Union Station--which might seem odd, were it not for the plot's preoccupation with railway stations.

The casting is not perfect, but Hall gets solid performances out of all the players. Two veteran character actors from Britain threaten to steal the show. The supporting roles of Reverend Chasuble and Miss Prism are quite small in terms of stage time, but the talents of Terence Rigby and Miriam Margolyes ensure that their comedic impact is large indeed.

The four actors who perform the play's two young couples in love are less assured--their accents sometimes waver and the characterizations don't always feel complete --but they're no less enjoyable to watch. Particularly enjoyable was Robert Petkoff's Algernon. Petkoff has the good looks and strong voice of a young Kenneth Branaugh--and he also has good sense of physical comedy. The manner in which he eats muffins and sandwiches is almost as funny as some of Algernon's punchlines.

But of course, as in all Earnest's, success ultimately rides on the character at its center: Lady Augusta Bracknell. Playing the role here at the Music Center (and receiving above-the-title billing) is Lynn Redgrave.

Redgrave is a fine actress, and she is also the daughter of Michael Redgrave, who memorably played the part of Jack Worthing in the famous 1951 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest.

I haven't seen that film--in fact, I've purposely avoided it for people I trust suggest that to see that film is to ruin any chance of enjoying Wilde's play performed on stage. Mostly this is due to Dame Edith Evans, whose Lady Bracknell defined the role in much the same way that Marlon Brando did with Stanley Kowalski or John Gielgud with Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Sadly, Lynn Redgrave does not reinvent the role of Lady Bracknell. She performs it well, though her voice doesn't fill the large venue, nor does her presence loom when she's not on stage.

Part of the problem though is Wilde's play. Quite simply, some of the lines are so good--and so widely quoted--that it's almost impossible for any actor to live up to the expectations.

Redgrave's Bracknell, like the production, is not sublimely intoxicating. Never does the performance take off and start to seem like &quota; verbal opera" as another Irishman, W.H. Auden once famously described Wilde's play.

Peter Hall and his cast have however put on a faithful interpretation--and they've done so in a thoroughly entertaining fashion. The opening night audience laughed loudly and often at Wilde's inversions, innuendo, and invention. At some points it seemed impossible that the play was first performed 111 years ago.

But it was and in the eleven decades since its debut, stagings of The Importance of Being Earnest have no doubt disappointed many who have loved Wilde's words on the page or in the memories of past productions. This would not have bothered the famously immodest playwright, who would not have wanted to be upstaged by actors. Nor would it have surprised him. Oscar Wilde knew better than anyone the problem of expectations. &quotThere; are only two tragedies in life," Wilde wrote in his play Lady Windermere's Fan, &quotone; is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest runs through March 5 at the Ahmanson Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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