Specializing in Irish plays and playwrights, Theatre Banshee in Burbank is exploring one of stage's most scintillating — and oft-produced — crown jewels, "The Importance of Being Earnest," Oscar Wilde's brilliant Victorian comedy of manners. And while this modest production of Wilde's masterpiece of masquerades, mistaken identity, impediments to true love, rapid-fire witticisms, wicked one-liners and lost luggage doesn't dazzle, it is enjoyable: light on its feet, well-spoken and frequently laugh-out-loud funny.
Upper-crust idler Algernon, played with properly languid self-satisfaction by Kevin Stidham, invents visits to a fictitious sick friend in the country to avoid unwelcome familial and societal obligations. Algernon's wealthy friend Jack (a solid Cameron J. Oro), a model of rectitude at his remote country estate, is more expansive when he visits London under the pseudonym Ernest — the name he has also given to an imaginary ne'er-do-well brother as a cautionary example for his lovely young ward Cecily back at home.
The masquerade begins to unravel with Jack's proposal to Algernon's cousin Gwendolyn (vivacious Sarah van der Pol), daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell. The personification of snobbish condescension and moral outrage, Lady Bracknell is played here by Andrew Leman with Wagnerian heft, a notable overbite and a superiority of lofted chins, plural. ("Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn," Lady Bracknell pronounces. "They are worn very high, just at present.")
Leman, in costume designer Michele Young's massive gowns and feathered hat, thankfully allows nary a twinkle to break character and indicate that he is in on the joke. The sincerity of Lady Bracknell's offended aristocratic sensibilities, upon learning that Ernest was found as an infant inside a handbag at a train station, is a hoot, one of many comedic highlights that Leman contributes to the proceedings.
Algernon hies down to Jack's estate in the guise of Jack's imaginary brother Ernest to court a willing Cecily (Erin Barnes, mixing wide-eyed romanticism with a hint of steely determination). Jack's own Ernest persona is found out, Cecily's secret-bearing governess Miss Prism (Amy Tolsky) encourages the diffident wooing of Rev. Canon Chasuble (David Carey Foster), Lady Bracknell sails in; and, after many quotable recriminations and revelations, the happy ending ensues.
If a certain toothy satiric bite is missing in a production that is not definitively grounded in time and place, director Sean Branney and his appealing professional cast make up for it with notably sharp comic timing. As an added treat, Branney takes advantage of the Banshee's small, curtainless stage and scenic designer Arthur MacBride's economical surprise touches to execute the full set change between acts two and three as a tightly choreographed pantomime performed for maximum comedic effect by butlers Merriman (Adrian Black) and Lane (Branney, filling in for actor David Pavao, played the role at the performance that I saw).
What: “The Importance of Being Earnest”
Where: Theatre Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends May 5
Tickets: $20; student and senior tickets, $16; groups of six or more, $13 each
More info: (818) 846-5323, www.theatrebanshee.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.