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Live Theatre Workshop gets Wilde while 'Being Earnest'

For you post-holiday dieters, here's the Oscar Wilde recipe for farce:

Carve two dozen brittle epigrams into agreeable shapes.

Dust with just enough powdery plot and character to hold the epigrams together.

Serve on stage, without overcooking, retaining enough raw piquance to make an audience perspire.

Wilde's signature dish, of course, is The Importance of Being Earnest, currently in production at Live Theatre Workshop. As directed by Dana Armstrong, the play has had some of its darker sediments--or perhaps that's sentiments--filtered out. The result may lose a little of the basic recipe's complex character, but it sparkles all the more.

The Importance of Being Earnest is a send-up of Victorian manners and dandyism, a mockery of the conventions of courtship and a mistaken-identity farce in which even the most supposedly innocent characters harbor ulterior motives. "The very essence of romance is uncertainty," says one figure on stage, and Wilde suggests this uncertainty could extend even to his male characters' sexual orientation. A fair amount of coded language here could suggest to Wilde's contemporaries that Jack "Earnest" Worthing and Algernon Moncreiff are gay, or at least swing in that direction.

Those verbal hints aren't likely to come across to an American audience today, and the Live Theatre Workshop production pretty much ignores that entire subtext. It also treats the characters with greater kindness than they perhaps deserve. For example, when Jack/Earnest (Jeremy Thompson) bumblingly proposes to the ardent but prim Gwendolyn Fairfax (Missie Scheffman), who is more interested in proper form than anything else, the scene is far more sweet than absurd.

Jack is a young country gentleman, in charge of a lovely and even younger ward named Cecily Cardew (Molly Holleran). But when he visits London, he goes by the name of Earnest, passing himself as his own nonexistent brother, so he can indulge in rather improper behavior without suffering repercussions back home. Jack's best friend, Algernon (Cliff Madison), is himself in the habit of using an imaginary friend as an excuse to tramp around the countryside, getting into all sorts of unspecified mischief.

Once Algernon learns of the existence of the dewy Cecily, he shows up at the country house while Jack's away, announcing himself as brother Earnest. Cecily is fascinated by wickedness, although she is also attracted to the name Earnest (as is Gwendolyn, back in London), and she instantly succumbs to Algernon's proposal of marriage, or some related activity.

Meanwhile, Jack's romance with Gwendolyn, who knows him as Earnest, is blocked by her family's matron, Lady Bracknell (Linda Andresano), whose main interest is getting a man of proper breeding and substantial income into the family. Jack is well established financially, but there is that little problem of his having arrived as a foundling in a handbag at a railway station.

Naturally, all sorts of complications arise when it becomes apparent that both Jack and Algy--or neither of them--may be Earnest. But the plot doesn't matter all that much. The whole story is hung on a framework of irresistible Wilde epigrams. You attend this play not to delve into complicated character and strange twists of plot, but to hear people say things like, "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

The actors must relish lines such as these, without allowing their flimsy characters to become nothing but conduits for Wilde's wit. The Live Theatre Workshop cast does a fine job at this; in particular, Madison (his Algy is a stand-in for Wilde himself) needles Thompson with affection. If the result is a bit less satirical bite than would be ideal, and if Thompson and Madison look a bit too old to play men in their 20s at close range, at least we're more persuaded than usual that these fellows might be actual human beings, rather than character sketches.

Of course, Wilde's dénouement remains as preposterous as ever, but there's nothing to be done about that. Besides, as the impishly truth-telling Wilde might have observed, verisimilitude is the first weapon of the dissembler.

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