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Taking liberties with 'Earnest' at A Noise Within

Taking liberties with 'Earnest' at A Noise Within
Adam Hass Hunter plays Algernon Moncrieff in "The Importance of Being Earnest." (Craig Schwartz)

The unparalleled sardonic wit of Oscar Wilde sustains "The Importance of Being Earnest" at A Noise Within, where it will doubtless be a crowd-pleasing hit, despite (or because of) its distinct idiosyncrasies, and therein hangs a conundrum.

A heightened sense of absurdity is clearly afoot upon seeing designer Jeanine A. Ringer's rococo set, complete with faux-proscenium and a Ganymede-esque portrait dominating the mise-en-scene.

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Enter an assured Adam Haas Hunter as Wilde surrogate Algernon Moncrieff, whom costume designer Garry D. Lennon dresses as an Aubrey Beardsley animation, and it's evident that Wilde's deathless comedy of manners will take place in an artfully artificial ethos.

That's not inappropriate, and once Christopher Salazar arrives as hero John Worthing, the contrast between his benign gravitas and Hunter's febrile acerbity is drolly amusing, a Victorian-era Mutt and Jeff.

Similarly, the sheer visual oomph of Jean Gilpin's archly ferocious Lady Bracknell and Carolyn Ratteray's shrewdly felicitous Gwendolen Fairfax carries its own quota of snickers (Lennon's lavish monochrome-with-color-accents costume parade is a show in itself).

And so it goes through the plot's clockwork convolutions, with the Act 2 descent upon Hertfordshire introducing Marisa Duchowny, her Cecily Cardew all girlish ruthlessness and precisely timed flutter. Company bellwether Jill Hill gives us a pickle-faced Miss Prism that Marian Seldes might recognize, well paired with Alberto Isaac's bumptious Canon Chasuble, and ever-reliable Apollo Dukakis makes manservants Merriman and Lane seem two different deadpan hoots.

However, while director Michael Michetti, as always one of L.A.'s best helmers, gives the property a refreshing nontraditional spin as regards casting, certain choices are more questionable. A number of interstitial cuts disturb the incomparable rhythm of Wilde's text, with more than one memorable tagline in Bracknell's interview scene with Jack, say, or Gwendolen's face-off with Cecily gone missing.

More critically, the emphasis on facial comedy and physical business sometimes works on its own terms, but at the expense of the play's tempos and attitude. This might be the first "Earnest" in memory where Gwendolen, then Algernon does a Danny Thomas spit take, or where the Worthing/Moncrieff battle of the muffins threatens to become a rambling free-for-all.

There's nothing wrong with a stylized take -- this observer's final acting gig was the Fabulous Monsters' cross-gendered "Earnest" in the '90s, stylized and then some -- and the play is essentially a satirical construct.

What's harder to reconcile are the increasingly broad strokes, surfeit of ignored punctuation -- where half the play's humor resides -- and self-aware line readings, less Wilde than Billy Wilder.

Again, audiences will eat this up -- heaven knows the crowd at the reviewed performance did -- and school groups should have a blast. Still, the results are at base inauthentic, however entertaining; die-hard Wildeans had best prepare to bear and forbear, or otherwise forswear.

"The Importance of Being Earnest," A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Runs in repertory; see website for schedule and ticket prices. Ends Nov. 22. (626) 356-3100, Ext. 1 or www.anoisewithin.org. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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