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THEATER BEAT

Frankly, this 'Earnest' is lacking

January 10, 2003|Philip Brandes

Insincere grandstanding and bad accents are qualities one might reasonably expect to encounter at, say, the United Nations.

But to stumble over both in a production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" looks like cluelessness, as Lady Bracknell might say.

The Knightsbridge Theatre revival of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy is quickly led astray by dubious staging choices. Most prominent is the introductory gimmick in which each audience "chooses" the roles for lead performers Jason Cole and Raymond Donahey. Of course, an informed decision is impossible without knowledge of the actors' skills, so the "choice" here involves a single volunteer drawing an actor's name out of a hat.

The net result of this business is requiring each lead to master twice as much material in a production that would benefit from more focus on a single role on each performer's plate.

The stellar exception, ironically enough, was Ralph Valencia Jr., standing in for Cole. Usually relegated to the two butler roles, Valencia infused his randomly assigned, hypocritical hedonist Algernon with exactly the right subtle subversion peeking out from the veneer of propriety.

This appropriateness was a sharp contrast to the regular cast, whose performances ranged from Donahey's awkward, uncertain Jack to the uncontrolled squealing of the female leads (Samantha Klein, Julie Terrell). Marti Hale captured Lady Bracknell's dry irony, but being easily 20 years too young for this plum role, never suggested the distilled bitterness of old age.

Whatever connection director Thia Stephan might have made between the Victorian England setting and American ragtime remains deeply enigmatic -- the recurring use of Scott Joplin's music is an incongruous distraction.

Finally, the business of having a snobby butler pass out cellophane-wrapped candies among the audience is downright suicidal -- the reason why most theaters actively discourage them was painfully audible through the performance.

P.B.

"The Importance of Being Earnest," Knightsbridge Theatre Los Angeles, 1944 Riverside Drive, Los Angeles. Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, noon. Ends Jan. 26. $22. (626) 440-0821. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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