Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is among those charmed plays that endlessly repays our consideration. It doesn’t matter how often one has heard its jokes, quips and banter: Smiles and laughter will inevitably follow, as they do in Sheldon Epps’ new production of the work at the Pasadena Playhouse. Yet there’s nothing funny about Epps’ rigid, unimaginative staging, complete with such “classy” touches as musical interludes by Debussy and an endless supply of tacky bric-a-brac.
The plot of “Earnest” is one of those delectable confections melding mistaken identity with thwarted love, but the real reward is Wilde’s rotund language, polished to a high gloss. Indeed, many of the lines are so famous, thesps must avoid tipping their hand in delivering them. That’s only one of many acting problems in the production.
At the center of the comedy are wealthy idlers Jack Worthing (Robert Curtis Brown) and Algernon Moncrieff (Patrick Dempsey). They should be irresistibly charming. Brown comes close, and delivers most of his lines with relish, even if he seems a little weary at times.
Dempsey is another story. His Algernon is painful to watch — and even worse to listen to. High school actors have done better in this role. His English accent is variable, and when it does stay put, Dempsey sounds more like a member of the working class than a swell. He can’t even keep the name of his beloved Cecily straight; half the time he calls her “Cicily.” His mannered tone and exaggerated movements further diminish his portrayal.
Casting Shirley Knight as the imperious Lady Bracknell was also a miscalculation. A fine actress, Knight possesses an enviable vulnerability — it’s one of her claims to greatness — but that quality is entirely at odds with what Lady Bracknell reps. Even as Knight zealously delivers zingers, her cherubic face contradicts their force.
Kaitlin Hopkins, as Lady Bracknell’s daughter, Gwendolen, fares better. Her sweetness mixed with steeliness suits this spoiled child. And Lina Patel exudes apt girlish effervescence as Cecily.
But it’s the minor players who impress most, with Carolyn Seymour turning in a well-nigh perfect performance as the starchy Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess. It’s a pity that Epps forces so many annoying mannerisms on poor Morgan Rusler, playing two very different servants.
John Iacovelli’s sets are too cluttered even for the Victorian era, but his trompe l’oeil stained glass is a wonder. Lovely, too, are Dana Rebecca Woods’ ornate costumes.
In a program note, Epps mentions that he’s always wanted to direct this play. Too bad he didn’t wait until he actually had something valuable to say.