With his production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Ahmanson, British director Peter Hall follows the advice of Hippocrates: Laying hands on one of the greatest, funniest stage comedies ever written, he first does no harm. This is a faithful, genial production, composed of crisp, lucid performances and unfussy staging. While he’s careful not to over-stylize, Hall adds to the straightforwardness with occasional swells of genuine romantic feeling, treating, as Oscar Wilde would have wanted it, the silliness of young love with appropriate earnestness and the potentially sobering social satire with the lightness of a feather.
Feathers, in fact, make a significant appearance in this production, ostentatiously adorning the hats worn by Lady Bracknell, played by Lynn Redgrave with a flavorful flamboyance.
The character, the standard-bearer of British propriety, spits out some of Wilde’s most famous lines. Interviewing — or, more accurately, interrogating — the man who wants to marry her daughter Gwendolen (Bianca Amato), she begins with the simple question, “Do you smoke?”
When Jack (James Waterston) replies in the affirmative, Lady Bracknell’s retort exemplifies the author’s delicious take on the upper classes: “I am glad to hear it,” she says. “A man should always have an occupation of some kind.”
Dressed in carefully color-coordinated attire by production designers Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon, Redgrave is an unusually enthusiastic Lady Bracknell, trading the traditional, super-staid uprightness for broad gestures and wide-eyed engagement. The performance makes Lady Bracknell very much an older version of the young lovers — so absorbed with fashion and fiction — but doesn’t enliven the show much.
Far more satisfying is Miriam Margolyes’ turn as Miss Prism, the country governess who fervently scolds her teenage pupil Cecily (Charlotte Parry) to study her German and her political economics.
Margolyes makes especially apparent that her character, while she’d never admit it, would also rather have the company of a man than a book. Miss Prism’s ample bust veritably, and very humorously, heaves with hidden emotion when she talks to the equally interested Rev. Chasuble (Terence Rigby). Like Redgrave, Margolyes pumps up the performance for the big house but nails the best lines with a disciplined specificity and a real relish for the language.
While Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism provide the star turns, any production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” hinges on the bigger but less glamorous roles of the young lovers. And here, Hall deserves great credit for finding four fine romantic leads seasoned enough to know when less is more. They act as a polished ensemble, each emitting plenty of charm but carefully refusing to outshine the others.
If the farcical elements of the plot — which concerns the young women believing they are engaged to the same man — feel a touch sluggish in the middle, it’s more than overcome by the way Amato’s Gwendolen histrionically prepares to be proposed to, or how Parry’s Cecily playfully reads from her diary to show the man she’s just met how they’ve been engaged for months.
The two American men acquit themselves especially well with the accents. But the performances are more than just well spoken. Waterston makes his character convincing both as city sophisticate and country gentleman, and his eagerness to resolve the mystery of his ancestry takes on a genuine momentum.
And as Algernon, really the toughest of the parts, Robert Petkoff deftly delivers the character’s calculating wit, but more surprisingly finds the true romantic in the dandy. When he kisses Cecily soon after meeting her, this is not the typically cool Algy, the clever closeted stand-in for Wilde, but a lusty, life-loving Algy, who really does fall head over heels.
There have been more attractive productions of “The Importance of Being Earnest” — the set is functional but a bit on the dowdy side. And there have certainly been funnier versions, too. But this production stands out for its sincere sweetness.