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Wilde at Heart

The humor is in the little things in Oscar Wilde's romantic comedy

Luke Robertson comes to quips with Nicole Lawrence.

By John Barry | Posted 10/28/2009

The Importance of Being Earnest

By Oscar Wilde

At Center Stage through Nov. 8

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde writes that "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the important thing." With that in mind, Riccardo Hernandez's set for the CenterStage production of the play may be right on the money. It greets the audience with a mix of web-site constructivism and 1920's art deco, in which the seven letters of the name Earnest-each one about 20 feet tall-reign over a stage where characters and zebra-skins scramble for attention. The effect is somewhat bizarre and disorienting and has the aura of unfettered, directionless style.

That feel is taken a step further with the stage's backdrop, which features a large, split photo of Wilde smoking a cigarette-something he apparently did a lot of. As we are reminded constantly, he wrote this play. He was also the author of the witty epigrams the theater is papered with. At first glimpse, the visual focus on Wilde suggests that we're headed for trip inside the writer's complex persona, but this production stays resolutely on the surface, traipsing through this masterpiece of freeze-dried, late-19th century British decadence. Staying on the surface, with style, has its rewards. And thanks to the lead actors, audience members will find that Wilde's sense of humor has outlasted the somewhat wacky plotline.

Luke Robertson stars as Algernon, the insouciant, cynical young swell, and, according to accepted wisdom, the stand-in for Wilde himself. Robertson doesn't allow that to stop him from turning Algernon into a charmingly real character, who wears his own shallowness like a rose in his buttonhole. Robertson's performance is funny, in the way that Wilde is funny. The world he lives in is in the gray zone of half lies and half truths, where the jokes are like low-hanging fruit, which he grabs at will, without trying all that hard.

As Jack, Ben Huber plays the country friend who comes to town to marry Gwendolen Fairfax (Gretchen Hall), the coyly manipulative woman of his dreams. The chemistry between actors Huber and Robertson sustains this production. As friends and rivals, their characters' constant verbal fencing is the play's prime mover. They have the energy of old friends who've worked hard together at doing nothing at all: Their minds are in overdrive, and like an old married couple, the passion springs out at strange moments.

For both Jack and Algy, women aren't as much objects of affection as plot complications. Jack comes to London, of course, to woo Gwendolen, but does it under his false identity of Ernest. Hall's performance is coyly controlling-she may be the object of desire, but she's calling the shots. That alpha streak, we learn, is in her genes. Backing her up is her mother, Lady Bracknell, the steel-willed dowager who has doubts about Jack's pedigree. Bracknell, who is the resilient icon of Victorian moral authority, is played by local favorite Lawrence O'Dwyer. O'Dwyer takes on the female role gamely, and without campiness.

The romance, in a Victorian drawing-room comedy, is a bloodless, asexual, plot device, and Wilde takes that to the hilt. The women love Algy and Jack for their assumed names. Algy wants to marry Gwendolen for, well, that's never quite clear. Jack's niece Cecily (energetically played by Nicole Lawrence) loves Algy because she thinks he's someone he isn't-the wicked Ernest. And the entire play, and everyone in it, revolves around a fateful mixup between the manuscript of a three-volume novel and a young infant.

So, Earnest may be about nothing, but it's also about a friendship. The occasional squabbles, the smooth putdowns, and the offhand battles give the story its magic. There's no underlying message, but there's a real affection for a world where, despite love and politics, the real battles are fought over muffins, sugar cubes, and cucumber sandwiches. Those moments could easily slip by unnoticed, but the cast here allows them to flower. While the play has its dead spots and somewhat pro-forma blocking, the charm is in the sudden moments where in a world of moral certitude and linear morality, words and phrases, as well as sugar cubes, take on their own power.

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