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'Earnest' strays from Wilde side

Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest poets and playwrights of his century, the 19th, had a penchant for parading around in feathered boas and velveteen breeches. He was nearly canonized by British literary critics for his plays, poems and his lone novel, the dark "The Picture of Dorian Gray," as well as his very quotable comments about a litany of topics.

Wilde's flamboyant trip across America in the early 1880s -- San Francisco journalist Ambrose Bierce branded him "that sovereign of insufferables" -- began with his famous statement to customs officials upon arrival: "I have nothing to declare but my genius." That probably wouldn't go over big today.

A lurid homosexual scandal and trial back home imprisoned Wilde and ruined his family and reputation but produced two acclaimed works, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" and a posthumously published apology to the public, "De Profundis." Wilde died at age 46, gasping, the story goes, "I am dying, as I lived, above my means."

Wilde's greatest legacy, though, remains "The Importance of Being Earnest," a play filled with epigrammatical fun and foolishness, white lies, mistaken identities and backfiring alibis. Jack Worthing, the tale's protagonist, himself says, "All I want is the truth, pure and simple." To which, Jack's friend, Algernon, replies: "The truth, my dear Jack, is never pure and rarely simple."

The Kavinoky Theatre, David Lamb directing, has produced "Earnest" before, and it's again a perfect choice for its intimate little stage.

The plot is complex, but briefly it is this: Jack Worthing, an orphan, or so he thinks, is an eligible bachelor who has a ward, the sweet Cecily, living in the British countryside. Every so often, Jack concocts a call from a fictitious rogue of a brother, "Ernest," who needs bailing out of some new scrape. Jack uses this ruse to escape the city, impress Cecily and pine for his real love, Gwendolyn Fairfax.

Of course, the scheme, with deceits galore, eventually starts to unravel as Algernon -- posing as Ernest -- is smitten with Cecily and then the formidable Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn's mother.

It all works out happily but not before much sorting out and a host of unlikely disclosures. Generally, this should be Wilde at his wildest. Usually, "Earnest," dated though it is, comes off as a timeless classic.

Well, not so fast. This Kavinoky version is inconsistent, listless one minute, spirited the next, with only occasional interest aroused among a yawning audience.

Oh, there are giggles -- Lady Bracknell's societal theories, Jack's ever-mounting dilemmas, the Moliere-like resolve -- but "Earnest" is not just another Brit-com. Unfortunately, it feels like one here. Director Lamb must shoulder some responsibility for that.

The cast is talented and dutiful: John Warren and Neal Moeller are Jack and Algernon -- Moeller seems to have a sense of it all -- the splendid Barbara Link LaRou excels as the imperious Bracknell, Hilary Walker and Leah Russo are the pretty love interests, Sheila McCarthy is Miss Prism, Steven Cooper is amusing as the meek Rev. Chasuble and Jim Maloy doubles up as butler Merriman and manservant Lane.

There is a David King set -- worn-looking but passable. There is original music by Tom Makar, lighting designs by Chris Cavanagh and costumes befit summer 1894.

There is no argument: this "The Importance of Being Earnest" is good. In the skilled hands of the Kavinoky, it should be better.

***

Theater Review

"The Importance of Being Earnest"

3 stars (out of 4)

Comedy opened Friday and runs through May 27 in Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.

For information, call 829-7668 or visit www.kavinokytheatre.com.

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