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Tv Review : An 'Earnest' Comedy Of Rich Wit And Manners

December 25, 1985|LEE MARGULIES | Times Staff Writer

Like a fancy dessert served after a big Christmas dinner, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is almost too much, so rich are its wit and other comical ingredients.

Almost. Somehow, one manages. Even on a day given over to so many other pleasures, the new production of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy that is airing at 8:30 tonight on KCET Channel 28 is worth making time for (if only to set the tape machine so you can watch it in perhaps a less exhausted state).

Although the marvelous theatricality of Wilde's writing makes "Earnest" better suited to the stage, where an audience's laughter adds punctuation to his clever, often satirical epigrams about life among the British rich, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and producer Terence Donovan have mounted an effective television adaptation. The pacing is quick, the style is droll and the cast is first-rate.

Gary Bond and Jeremy Clyde star as Jack and Algernon, the 19th-Century gentlemen whose penchant for deceit produces delightful degrees of animosity between them and confusion for the two women they love, Gwendolen (Gabrielle Drake) and Cecily (Ann Thornton), each of whom believes her fiance's name to be Ernest.

It is Wendy Hiller who gets top billing, however, and she plays the snobbish Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen's mother and Algernon's aunt, to the hilt. It's a treat to watch.

Indeed, her reading of the single, one-word line in response to Jack's disclosure that he doesn't know his parentage because he was found as an infant in a handbag could serve as a lesson in acting. "Found?" she says, drawing it out long enough to express elements of surprise, puzzlement, intrigue and disgust.

"This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners," Cecily protests at one point. Ah, but it is--and happily so.

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