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THEATER REVIEW : Earnest Revival of Wilde's Masterpiece of Satire

March 16, 1995|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oscar Wilde's often neglected masterpiece, "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1895), has been brightly revived by the Knightsbridge Theatre.

A satirical comedy about two young men overcoming social obstacles in their plot to capture the hearts of two young ladies, the play, in the words of Wilde himself, "is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy."

It requires, in short, not the kind of acting style with which young American actors feel particularly at home. But under director Sharon Higgins' delicious sense of style and tone, eight talented cast members engage in brittle, witty repartee in just the right mock-classic form that Wilde demands.

In this case, Wilde uses farce and mistaken identity to offend the proprieties and social standards of late-Victorian England.

The pair of smitten swains are flavorfully played by David James MacDonald as the rich, indolent Algernon Moncrieff and Anthony Roush as the mysteriously bred Jack Worthing. The latter, as an infant, was found in a handbag in Waterloo Station, which makes his family background highly suspect to the stuffy Lady Bracknell (Eve Sigall), who oversees the young people's marriage proposals.

To lend studied triviality to this feather of a comedy, the young gentlemen's biggest romantic obstacle is that the ladies they fancy (Nancy Finn's Gwendolen Fairfax and Jane Longenecker's Cecily Cardew) can only cherish a man named Earnest because the very sound of it throbs with dashing adventure.

Naturally, both men pretend to be an Earnest until all the confusion is happily unraveled.

The four romantic principals are fully up to the combination of bite and manners required by Wilde's lines. The women, especially, are the epitome of sublime insouciance. One extended scene they share, as they snap at one another under a grand illusion, is a joy to observe in its tricky, alternating rhythms.

Another index to the skill on stage is the butler, Robert Craig, who is quietly amusing as he follows orders by rolling out a sardonic: "As you wish, Sir!," which he uncurls like a viper's tongue.

* "The Importance of Being Earnest," Knightsbridge Theatre, 35 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, Friday, 7 p.m., Sunday matinee, 2 p.m., Ends Sunday. $10-$12. (818) 440-0821. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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