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A Lot of Wilde Style Goes a Very Long Way

Theater review: The sets for La Jolla Playhouse's 'The Importance of Being Earnest' are as fantastic as the characters in an altogether bold staging.


LA JOLLA — Using logic that Oscar Wilde would have admired, the La Jolla Playhouse has dubbed this season its 50th anniversary (the theater opened in 1947, but experienced a hiatus from 1964-83). Whatever the arithmetic, La Jolla opened its new season on Sunday night with a likable and visually striking production of "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Director Les Waters and designer Annie Smart have taken to heart Wilde's dictum: "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing." It looks as though Diana Vreeland herself painted the houses of these fabulously amusing aristocrats. The three rooms of the three acts are the product of a sense of style so confident it overcomes even garishness. First purple, then turquoise, then canary yellow, each room has a purple floor and is framed--just inside the proscenium--by the thinnest line of gold fluorescent light. The furniture is sparse but elegant, in shades of lilac, periwinkle, gold and royal blue. Smart's costumes are of a similarly brazen palette; in one scene, the fashionable young lady Gwendolen sports neon orange.

The design is dazzling, a jewel case for the characters' fantastic lines. And individual lines land well in this airless setting. But each act seems disengaged, as distinct as its cartoonish colors. The effect is that the comedy doesn't build as thunderously as it might.

The acting style is similarly bold. Eighty percent of the dialogue is said out to the audience, with a conscious awareness that just about every sentence is a gem (if a sentence isn't quotable in this play, then it's a setup for one that is).

As Algernon, one of the young men who appropriates the name "Earnest" (it drives the ladies wild), Barnaby C. Carpenter falls into a common trap for actors playing the character most like Wilde himself. He seems besotted with his own cleverness. He grins just before delivering each quip and smiles smugly just after.

The other characters do a better job of letting us appreciate the wit. In the small part of the love-struck and pompous Reverend Chasuble, Peter Bartlett makes even the lines "She approaches; she is nigh" delectable.

As John, the other young man who sometimes goes by Earnest, Jefferson Mays is very good, a ruddy-cheeked fellow who embodies the British stalwartness that so tickled Wilde. About to have the mystery of his birth finally revealed, his self-control is admirable. While he appears almost about to explode, he manages to ask quite politely, "Lady Bracknell, I hate to seem inquisitive, but would you kindly inform me who I am?"

Replacing an ailing Linda Hunt, Christine Estabrook is a young Lady Bracknell but a good one. Her confidence in all of her pronouncements is delicious. Her unruffability in the face of any unexpected detail is nothing short of heroic, such as when she admonishes John for being found as a baby in a handbag in Victoria Station. "Until yesterday," she indignantly informs him, "I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a terminus."

This is a problem for John, who wishes to marry her daughter Gwendolen. As Gwendolen, the wonderful Veanne Cox shows that John has cause to worry she might become like her mother "in about 150 years." Her vocal quality has just begun to take on that mezzo quality so necessary to a future battle-ax, and she too has a dazzling confidence in everything she thinks. She is also unflappable as she tosses out and receives insults from John's ward Cecily, played by Aimee Guillot as a more ditsy variety of the perfectly self-assured young lady of 1890.

The critic Hesketh Pearson once wrote of this play, "Although described by some critics as a farcical comedy . . . that description is meaningless. It comes under no category." Indeed, the incalculable pleasure of "Earnest" defies all description, and La Jolla presents it in much of its glory, in shades of purple and periwinkle.

* "The Importance of Being Earnest," La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Ends June 15. $19-$36. (619) 550-1010. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Tom Fitzpatrick: Lane

Barnaby C. Carpenter: Algernon Moncrieff

Jefferson Mays: John Worthing

Christine Estabrook: Lady Bracknell

Veanne Cox: Gwendolen Fairfax

Ursula Meyer: Miss Prism

Aimee Guillot: Cecily Cardew

Peter Bartlett: Reverend Canon Chasuble

Paul H. Juhn: Merriman

A La Jolla Playhouse production. By Oscar Wilde. Directed by Les Waters. Sets and costumes Annie Smart. Lights James F. Ingalls. Sound Michael Roth. Stage manager Jill Rendall.

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