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Most people would place Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" among the half-dozen most entertaining comedies over the past 100 years or so. It debuted in 1895. The same people would be likely to concede that it is his best play. Why, then, is the performance at the Princess of Wales Theatre so little amusing?

It comes with credentials: a run in Britain's Birmingham Rep, a run in London's Old Vic, a high-profile theater director, Terry Hands, and reportedly raves wherever it has played. (This is its only North American engagement.)

In the theater-going world these are all good reasons for wanting to see it. Furthermore, it is almost 100 years since Wilde's sad death in a French hotel in 1900 (if you believe in prescience, there is a line in "Earnest" about dying in a French hotel), and media of all kinds are gearing up to celebrate and take advantage of the great writer. You might expect something special from this production.

What is so baffling about it is just how unspecial it is. It seems to be in the grip of a debilitating theatrical virus. The acting takes its cue from entertainment of perhaps 70 years ago, when comic expressions had to register in the very last rows. Now, it is true the Princess of Wales is on the large side, well-designed though, and probably best-suited for musicals requiring a lot of room. Still, the comic mugging by actors seems overripe and out of place.

The single take, the double take, the triple take, mouth ajar, a cartoon expression of bewilderment pasted on the face, and directed at the audience as if the audience cannot be counted on to pick it up, does not improve on Wilde. Nor does the shaky teacup (rattle-rattle once, twice, again) signaling to us Jack Worthing's nervousness at proposing to Gwendolen Fairfax. Philip Bretherton (Worthing) seems to be capable of far better than this. But like everyone's in this show, his performance trips over cliche after cliche.

Question: If we already know what to expect from Wilde's play -- a classic, in other words -- what use is it to make the acting so completely predictable -- cliche on top of cliche? An immediate casualty of this approach is that no one really relates to anyone else because there's no one to relate to. There are no personalities. There are only comic bits and pieces piled up to look like people caught in comedic circumstances. Lady Bracknell (Diane Fletcher), for instance, is just too anonymous to be amusing. Matthew Lloyd Davies' Algernon is little more than clothes and a set of worn gestures.

Neither Algernon nor Worthing exhibits any connection -- that is, except the play says so -- with the young women, Candida Gubbins' Gwendolen or Pauline Turner's Cecily Cardew. And vice versa. Nobody is home in this performance. Even as brilliantly funny as Wilde's lines are, to be truly entertaining they have to be launched by someone called Lady Bracknell or Algernon, not simply by an actor going under that name and little else.

What is Hands doing? Almost anything in theater that passeth understanding can fall under protective custody of "camp." "Camp" is very sophisticated. Rather than take something for what it is, it is taken it for something else, so it becomes all right for actors to neglect characters because they aren't doing the comedy itself anyway, they are doing a comment on doing the comedy. It is all very self-regarding. Is this Hands' aim? Doubtful, but possible.

Would it have fared better in the Royal Alexandra Theatre next door, where it was first scheduled? It might have been a little better, but performances and direction are so obvious, so superficial, that transformation into the exhilarating comedy Wilde actually wrote is unlikely.

The reason it couldn't go into the Royal Alex is that the management's musical "Jolson" has extended its run through Oct. 25 there. "Earnest" follows "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," the big musical, in the Princess of Wales. "Earnest" -- running through Oct. 18 -- is the fall season's first new show for the two side-by-side theaters.

The Princess of Wales will also have Compania Antonio Gades' dance troupe's "Carmen" Oct. 23 to Nov. 8, and the musical revival of "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" from late October through December. In the Royal Alex in November and continuing will be the musical "Rent."

The British connection surfaces again in the spring, if not sooner, when some productions from Sir Peter Hall's Old Vic season this year are brought over. Selected productions from the season could include "King Lear," David Rabe's "Hurly Burly," Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," Sebastian Barry's "Prayers for Sherkin" and Harley Granville Barker's "Waste," among others.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Rating:** 1/2 Comedy by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Terry Hands, with Philip Bretherton, Matthew Lloyd Davies, Diance Fletch er, Candida Gubbins and others. Performances Monday through Saturday, through Oct. 18. Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto (416-872-1212 or 800-461-3333).

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