by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f it isn't the greatest comedy in the English language, it's on the short list. Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is a thinking person's farce, with less emphasis on slamming doors than on verbal reversals. The leisured class bickers about cucumber sandwiches, then laments how the working classes are failing to set proper standards of behavior. Fashion is everything; marriage, a sham. It's a world of down-the-rabbit-hole giddiness varnished over with the illusion of everyday respectability.
The current production at Actors Rep (at SFCC through Sept. 6), while it lacks some of the necessary elegance and wit-crackle, serves as a reminder of how funny and thought-provoking (and funny) Wilde's comedy can be. His dialogue, a gossamer confection, suddenly upsets received opinions about class, gender, marriage -- like cotton candy that makes you giggle when you bite down on the hard chunks. Will Jack prove himself worthy of Gwendolyn? Will Algy create a way to meet Cecily? And will the older generation obstruct the path to true love?
Wilde's British twits have no responsibilities and all the time they need to gallivant around the countryside playing practical jokes. (One insults a chap and then adjusts one's cravat, you see, and there's an end to it.) The devil-may-care silliness of it all is best embodied here by Jon Lutyens' Algernon -- a beanpole in a smoking jacket, lounging on a divan and gorging himself on the hors d'oeuvres. He's in cahoots with his Aunt Augusta and loves nothing more than being excessively entertained. Lutyens's grinning self-centeredness is full of glee.
The battleaxe of the piece, Lady Bracknell, is often played with massive voice by massive women. In her growly rendition, Karen Nelsen descends into her lowest vocal register while also half-smiling, chirping, and setting her eyes a-glow. If we miss the looming matriarch, we get bemused flirtatiousness in its place: Nelsen can bellow, but she can also be flirty if that's what's required to get her way.
In her characterization of Lady Bracknell's daughter, Caryn Hoaglund-Trivett tugs out two things -- bossiness and lust -- not usually seen to this extent on stage. Quivering with desire beneath her plum gown, her hands smoothing out her lap, Hoaglund-Trivett gets enough sexual yearning out of a single word -- "vibrations" -- to make Gwendolyn's longing for Jack both plausible and hilarious. And when Mamma's away, this particular Gwendolyn does more than merely play: Just like her mother, she domineers over any available male. In this case, the victim is her suitor Jack (Damon Mentzer, full of anxiety and comic slow burns over all offenses against propriety).
Within evident budgetary constraints, John Hofland's set pulls off some creative touches. Earnest, you see, needs to look like an elegant Victorian wedding, with top hats and parasols sashaying across gleaming surfaces or past topiary. Here, though, three wire arches and crushed paper on black slabs are simply too plain. Cleverly, though, Hofland inserts paintings -- splashed with color like a Matisse -- into windows, hinting at exterior views. Meanwhile, young Cecily (Kari McClure, a pigtailed portrait of smiling Victorian innocence) bends with her watering can over flowers painted on signboards, nicely emphasizing the artifice while also underscoring the cost-cutting measures.
Rebecca Cook's elegant gowns, meanwhile -- showing no such constraints -- enwrap aristocratic women by gathering gilded lace into bustles just so, then topping off ensembles with sprays of feathers and perky little hats.
Director Michael Weaver extracts much (if not the maximum) of propriety and playfulness from his cast. Algy and Jack's quarrel over muffins at the end of Act Two is played as well here as I've ever seen it, and much of the credit is due to Weaver's choreographing of the scene. When the pairs of lovers reconcile, Weaver deploys his actors in symmetrical and robotic ways, emphasizing what fools these mortals be.
The arched eyebrow, the gloved fingers rapping with impatience, the bubble of outraged hauteur pricked by sudden absurdity -- ARt's Earnest captures most if not all of these seriously trivial moments.
I've seen productions of Earnest that were more elegant and witty, but few that displayed so well the similarities between Lady Bracknell and her daughter, or between the haughty aunt and her playful nephew, or between the two leading males (in their bickering, resentful silliness). And a mostly well-done performance of an indisputably great comedy makes for a laugh-out-loud evening.