Odds are, someone is performing “The Importance of Being Earnest” somewhere in the world every day — and inadequately. Oscar Wilde’s alien world of studied artifice, so reliant on verbal felicity and subtle attitude, perennially tempts artists to substitute excess for, well, earnestness. Warner Shook’s handsome revival at South Coast Rep, livelier than most, falls into the usual trap of tarting up the exquisite comedy — ranked as the 14th greatest play of all time in Daniel Burt’s recent “The Drama 100” — with forced, tired biz out of a Ray Cooney farce. Chuckling audiences can be forgiven for wondering, “What’s so great about this old chestnut?”
Fundamental mistrust of the material is typified by Michael Gotch’s over-the-top Algernon, the professional wastrel whose mischievous interference in the romance of best friend Jack (Tommy Schrider) provides the thin plot engine.
Languid Algy, who could spend an entire afternoon deciding how to lift his pinky, is set to flouncing and leaping about Michael Olich’s sparely elegant sets like a seal in heat. Playing frankly to the house, Gotch’s Algy gears up for each of Wilde’s epigrams and punches them out. Small wonder they rarely land as they should.
Cast is prone to heavy-handed italicizing of script’s sallies, contrary to the rules of the Wildean universe, in which bon mots and paradoxes are employed as readily as breathing; indeed, verbal wit is the justification for breathing at all. Just as musical comedy actors sing because spoken words no longer suffice, Wilde’s characters feel an inner need for witticisms that must waft effortlessly if they are to enthrall.
“Effortless,” however, is the last adjective one would apply here. Pains taken to choreograph simultaneous sits and head snaps, or turn a casual whistle into a ghastly interpolated ukulele number, would have been better applied to sharpening the rapier wit or shaping breath control. Lines that have inspired hilarity for over a century are met with silence, the actors working strenuously to earn laughter through full-body physical reactions and broad takes.
Schrider, though possessing the proper air of the chartered accountant in contrast with Algy’s dandy, is particularly mushy and overwrought as the character whose sangfroid is most tested and hence needs to be most preserved. (That his British vowels are largely off doesn’t help, nor that his and Gotch’s intonations are virtually identical.)
Of the young ladies, Elise Hunt’s fetchingly pre-Raphaelite Cecily remains lightly droll, though Christine Marie Brown’s Gwendolyn gilds the lily with too many quotation marks around her quotations.
The older generation has a better go of it. Kandis Chappell delivers Lady Bracknell’s ironic, topsy-turvy pronouncements on society largely for her own delectation — that’s what makes her so piercingly funny — and it’s difficult to imagine any Bracknell delivering a more fearsomely imperious “Prism! Where is that baby?”
Speaking of Prism, Amelia White exudes a welcome coltish sensuality unusual in the stock dotty governess role, and Richard Doyle is dryly effective as her inamorato Canon Chasuble whenever he resists a racing case of the cutes.
Making the crispest and most hilarious choices, albeit on the periphery, is John-David Keller pulling double valet duty. Endowing Algy’s manservant Lane with a thin smirk, subtly conveying a world of meaning about his self-delight and opinion of the upper classes, he later ages 20 years to make every entrance count as the fussy, put-upon Merriman. Embodying high style is everything in Wilde, and in this production, as in so many murder mysteries of the era, the butler did it.