Oscar Wilde's 1895 Victorian masterpiece, a sophisticated blend of drawing-room farce and trenchant social satire, requires cream-of-the-crop actors and precise direction to strike the right balance between high-spirited frivolity and literate dramaturgy. Driven by razor-sharp witticisms, Wilde's eloquent language can soar in the hands of skilled performers, while his intricate comic mix-ups transcend silliness in their incisive depictions of human nature. Director Peter Hall's staging of his Theatre Royal Bath production is a generally satisfactory rendition of this oft-performed classic. There's a business-as-usual feel to the slow-moving first act, in which the performances seem more dutiful than inspired. After intermission, the plot complications that have been methodically established are brought to fruition, and the laughs flow freely and frequently.
The characters should be familiar to most: the two eligible bachelors, Algernon (Robert Petkoff) and Jack (James Waterston), and the fabricated characters they have created as excuses to travel from home; their respective suitors, Gwendolen (Bianca Amato) and Cecily (Charlotte Parry), who get caught up in their web of deceits; Gwendolen's social-climbing mother, Lady Bracknell (Lynn Redgrave), who stands in the way of the budding romances; and an older wannabe couple, Miss Prism (Miriam Margolyes) and Rev. Chasuble (Terence Rigby). In the coveted role of the controlling dowager Bracknell, often played as a caricature, Redgrave gives a nicely modulated portrayal. She nails her punch lines with seemingly effortless finesse and carries herself with appropriate elegance in Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon's smart period costumes. Margolyes' love-struck governess is likewise on target--a robust, funny characterization. Rigby amuses as the smitten clergyman.
The actors playing the young lovebirds share a wonderful chemistry. Parry is saucy and charming as the coquettish Cecily; Amato is formidable as the self-assured Gwendolen. Petkoff captivates as the rouge Algernon, who has little control for any of his appetites, and as his befuddled antagonist, Waterston reacts to him beautifully. The importance of Earnest is its ability to entertain, and this determinedly traditional interpretation should please most Wilde aficionados.
Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m. (Dark Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 5 & 19, Mar. 5. Added performances Thu. 2 p.m. Feb. 2 & 16, Mar. 2.) Jan. 25-Mar. 5. (213) 628-2772.