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THEATER : A Less Important 'Earnest' Bubbling Over in Garden Grove

October 11, 1990|SYLVIE DRAKE | Sylvie Drake is The Times' theater writer.

The Grove Shakespeare Festival, which resolved its financial troubles Tuesday with eleventh-hour windfall donations, can celebrate its good fortune on the clever, upbeat note struck by its current production of "The Importance of Being Earnest."

The Oscar Wilde play--which will now be followed as scheduled by the holiday show "A Child's Christmas in Wales"--bubbles over with spirit and effusiveness. But the mood of anxious brinksmanship that prevailed at the Grove in recent unsettled weeks is also reflected in the way this earnest edition of "Earnest" teeters on the edge of going too far, seeming a tad too hyper.

Director Jules Aaron's zesty and stylish staging gets derailed now and then by an unexpected wrong note or quirky faux pas.

This is exemplified by Diana Bellamy's formidable Lady Bracknell. Bellamy takes the stage like a fortress, verbally colonizing all in her path, thrashing them roundly for whatever views they might hold. How surprising, then, in the midst of all that stentorian Queen's English to find her lapsing into imperial Brooklynese.

It is not a major mortification in a production that moves briskly forward, but it does set a tone. One has to chuckle, particularly since those playing younger set, including Emily Heebner as Bracknell's daughter Gwendolen, betray similar tendencies. Ferdinand Lewis has a gift for drop-dead timing as the elegant Jack, and Ron Campbell is a rascally pup as the mischievous Algernon.

Heebner's imperious Gwendolen is, however, every inch her mother's strong-willed daughter. Bonita Friedericy as Cecily is a little too dedicated to seeming irresistibly pert, which comes across as being quite calculatingly uncalculating. It could be disconcerting until you realize how perfectly that touch of duplicity will serve Cecily in her marriage to Algernon.

Armed with Wilde's witticisms, these four make up a merry band of verbal dart-throwers under the Bracknell tutelage, steering the course with enough verve to overcome lesser accomplishments in the supporting roles.

The comic possibilities with which Wilde carefully endows the two model head servants are not fully exploited here. Marnie Crossen puts quiver into her Miss Prism, but not much suppressed sexual excitement over the Rev. Chasuble, perhaps because Alvin Silver is so wooden as the preacher.

Gil Morales' airy triple setting, Martha Ferrara's plush costuming and Rex Heuschkel's perky lighting create an inviting context for the comedy. And as usual, Chuck Estes' original compositions smartly dress up the evening.

What: "The Importance of Being Earnest."

When: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m., until Nov. 3.

Where: The Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove.

Whereabouts: 22 Freeway to Euclid exit; north to Garden Grove Blvd.; left on Garden Grove to Main St.; right on Main to the theater.

Wherewithal: $16-$20.

Where To Call: (714) 636-7213.

* THEATER LISTINGS, Page 23.

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