Times Theater Critic

"The Importance of Being Earnest" is the funniest play in the world. There is no need to insist on the fact.

Charles Marowitz's staging for the Los Angeles Theatre Center suffers from excessive underlining. Jack gets a faceful of feathers when he bends to kiss Gwendolyn's hand. A bird dumps on Canon Chasuble's head. Miss Prism shows her bosom.

This is to remind us, if we didn't catch it from the language, that "Earnest" is a comedy. Instead of adding diversionary horseplay, perhaps Marowitz should have spent the time making sure that we did catch it from the language. His cast (particularly Diana Chesney as Lady Bracknell) were a bit tentative on Friday night, like children trying out new skates.

Still, it's hard to go too far wrong with "Earnest." It's such a gleeful attack on the best people, and such a witty piece of theater making (the plot as well as the lines), that you would laugh even if this were a student production--which, after all, it isn't.

Here are two very good things about it: Noel Taylor's costumes and Jim Piddock's performance as Jack. Taylor's costumes are amusing without being smart alecky--most amusing, perhaps, when they're perfectly "correct," as when Jack shows up in the country in his funeral tweeds.

That's Wilde's joke, and Taylor doesn't feel the need to top it--the mark of a confident designer. But Taylor has great fun with Miss Prism, whom he garbs as a medieval maid in a pre-Raphaelite painting. This is not our ordinary image of that strict governess, but it suggests her image of herself, and it's much funnier than the cleavage gag.

Piddock's performance as Jack is interesting. "Earnest" is a mannered play, and Piddock's line readings are the least mannered of anyone in the cast. Yet he seems the most at home in the world of the play. Either this is an actor who can make himself at home anywhere (a combination of self-confidence and good training) or the part will take a more downright approach than it's usually given.

In any case, his performance has a freedom that we miss in Jonathan Schmock's Algy and in Diana Chesney's Lady Bracknell, who serve their lines without convincing us that they, and not Oscar Wilde, made them up.

Jack's and Algy's sweethearts--in whom they do seem to be interested, despite reports that this was to be a gay interpretation of the play--are Maria Mayenzet (as Gwendolyn) and Jane Windsor (as Cecily). Mayenzet has Gwendolyn's traditional hauteur; Windsor makes Cecily a pouty and potentially perverse Alice in Wonderland.

Lucy Lee Flippin is well in tune with Miss Prism's inner voices, and Gene Ross' Canon Chasuble handles himself with as much dignity as possible. Richard Merson plays Merriman, Jack's butler, and Gary Heilsberg plays Lane, Algy's manservant. There is no problem believing that Lane would steal from Algy's wine cabinet--he usually does, I believe--but it is very hard to imagine him lolling on the sofa, even when you see it.

A. Clark Duncan's set goes from Japanese (for Algy's digs) to fake Gothic (for Jack's) without strain. This is a bread-and-butter "Earnest"--if you demand cucumber sandwiches, you'll have to try another establishment.

Something's askew in the Odyssey Theatre's production of David Mamet's "The Woods." Billed as "a power-charged and insightful exploration of contemporary male-female relations," it comes off as the story of two self-centered yuppies having a mutual tantrum.

It could be Mamet's script, which has a self-important ring--his big problem as a writer these days. But there's got to be more going on in this play than meets the eye and the ear at Odyssey 2. Perhaps director Frank Condon couldn't find a way into the script. Perhaps the chemistry between Sam Anderson (Nick) and Susan Heldfond (Ruth) didn't jell--they don't seem to have found each other's rhythms.

In any case, it's an antsy evening, even at 90 minutes. It plays Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. 12111 Ohio Ave., West Los Angeles. (213) 826-1626.

'THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST' Oscar Wilde's comedy, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Charles Marowitz. Set design A. Clark Duncan. Lighting design Martin Aronstein. Costume design Noel Taylor. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Stage manager Bill Holland. With Jim Piddock, Jonathan Schmock, Gene Ross, Richard Merson, Gary Heilsberg, Diana Chesney, Maria Mayenzet, Jane Windsor, Lucy Lee Flippin. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Closes May 10. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 627-5599.

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