THEATER REVIEWS : Importance of Letting ‘Earnest’ Be : A broad, uneven (but good-looking) revival at the Long Beach Playhouse can’t improve on Oscar Wilde’s wit and charm.
When Oscar Wilde talked, people listened. His witty gab was once described as having the same brilliant effect as sunlight glinting off a fountain.
In fact, some literary historians say Wilde was most clever on the run, even more than in his aphorism-rich writing. Hard to believe, especially when you think of such gleaming works as “The Picture of Dorian Gray” or such ticklish ones as “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
“Earnest,” currently in a goofy, over-the-top revival at the Long Beach Playhouse’s Studio Theatre, is loaded with Wildean charm. Watching his comedy performed, even in a rough production, brings a sense of familiarity--many of his famous epigrams turn up in the play, and it’s always a pleasure hearing them.
But in Long Beach, director Phyllis Gitlin isn’t satisfied letting Wilde’s language do the feisty business of entertaining us. The dialogue of “Earnest” doesn’t need much massaging, a fact that Gitlin and many in her cast have ignored. At times this show has the all the broad gestures of musical comedy, and that won’t do.
As anyone who knows “Earnest” can attest, the “mistaken identity” plot is so inane as to be almost inconsequential; the society-puncturing lines are what carry you through this tale of two upper-class fops with a knack for deception. John and Algernon aren’t bad guys, just foolish, and their mild trickery backfires as the comedy glides along.
Both of the wisenheimers are young, which works against Dick Fuchs as John, who, for reasons better left unexplained, is also the Earnest of the play’s title. John is supposed to be 29, but Fuchs looks to be in his late 40s; that’s hard to ignore considering the youthful excesses of his character.
Fuchs tries to compensate by upping Jack’s animated tendencies, a decision that leads to more than a few indulgences. He even turns to the audience after amusing lines, as if to make sure we got the joke. It only reinforces our sense that he’s trying too hard.
Algernon is even more of a self-absorbed pain than Jack, but at least Preston Maybank is more successful at finding his humor. This Algernon minces about, rolling his eyes and acting as if he just ate something really good. He gets such a pleased look on his face, especially when he’s thinking of pleasing himself.
His doubtful valentine, the young Cecily, is also taken with herself, a fact that Mary Boessow has infectious fun with. When Algernon asks if he can look at her, she replies innocently, “Yes, I’m quite fond of being looked at.” It’s a throwaway line in this flood of bright talk, but Boessow turns it into a declaration of Cecily’s wacky identity.
There’s also plenty of wackiness in Patty Lund’s Gwendolen; too much, it turns out. Lund, with her good-witch-Glinda voice and prancing ways, is more distracting than inviting as she tries to energize Jack’s uncertain love interest.
The cast may be uneven in its approach, but the production’s technical folks are steady. Todd Faux’s sets, with their fake marble veneers and other tony touches, are reasonably opulent representations of the oh-so-comfortable environments Jack, Algernon and the others drift through. Jane Phillips Hobson’s lighting adds to the wealth, giving the comedy a creamy richness.
* “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Long Beach Playhouse’s Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees this Sunday and Jan. 16 and 23. Ends Jan. 29. $10. (310) 494-1616.
Raun Imperial: Lane
Preston Maybank: Algernon Moncrieff
Dick Fuchs: John Worthing
Jo Black-Jacobs: Lady Bracknell
Patty Lund: Gwendolen Fairfax
Laura Miller: Miss Prism
Mary Boessow: Cecily Cardew
Glenn Koppel: Rev. Canon ChasubleCQ
Godfrey Fies: Merriman
A Long Beach Playhouse production of Oscar Wilde’s comedy. Directed by Phyllis Gitlin. Sets: Todd Faux. Lighting: Jane Phillips Hobson. Costumes: Stephanie Joseph. Sound: Bob Ashby.