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STAGE REVIEW : This ‘Earnest’ Knows the Importance of Being Wilde

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is one of those little gems of theater that audiences seem never to tire of. The century-old comedy of manners, with its games of innocent romance, its barbs at social snobbery, and its wealth of epigrammatic humor, never ages.

It helps immensely when a director--in this case Vanguard Theatre’s artistic director, Terry Gunkel--knows the territory, the tempos and rhythms of high comedy. Gunkel doesn’t let us down.

If his stage is small, and in the round, Gunkel knows how to move his actors for high visibility from all angles, and how to balance the energy of his predominantly capable cast. One can forgive a small detail such as the unforgivably unpeeled cucumbers in the sandwiches that Algy (Todd W. Crabtree) had his butler Lane (Paul Meitzler) prepare for his Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell (Laurel Kelsh).

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If Crabtree misses the style of a Victorian London dandy by a couple of millimeters, he does maintain the lightness of Algy’s personality as he investigates the secret life of his friend John Worthing (Christopher Rondholz). Rondholz is much closer to the mark, wearing his stylishness naturally and comfortably.

Kelsh gives the lie to the myth that no one but Edith Evans can play Lady Bracknell properly. Kelsh’s abrasive charm as Algy’s socially conniving aunt is her own invention, and it works well. The same is true of Sarah Lang’s Miss Prism, governess to Worthing’s ward Cecily; although somewhat young for the role, she makes up for it with a good understanding of self-image that makes Miss Prism comfortable in an uncomfortable world.

The most effective members of the company are Arlyn McDonald as Gwendolyn, Algy’s cousin and Worthing’s intended, and in particular Wendy Abas as Cecily, a delightful performance with every note right. McDonald and Abas know where all the epigrams are and make the most of them.

Paul Meitzler’s subdued Lane is amusing, but Peter Malluzi’s country Worthing butler Merriman is overdone and silly. John Miller, as the Rev. Chasuble, does not belong in this company; he couldn’t find an epigram with a ring painted around it, and prissily putting his fingertips together to indicate piety misses the humor of Wilde and of his character.

The production, and Gunkel’s direction, attests to his awareness that, in playing Wilde, being earnest is quite as important as being trivial.

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

* A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of the Oscar Wilde play. Directed by Terry Gunkel. With Wendy Abas, Todd W. Crabtree, Laurel Kelsh, Sarah Lang, Peter Malluzi, Arlyn McDonald, John Miller, Paul Meitzler, Christopher Rondholz. Set and lighting: Terry Gunkel. At the Vanguard Theatre, 699-A State College Blvd., Fullerton. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. Ends Feb. 6. $10 to $14. (714) 526-8007. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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