THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

Spitting out a drink of water in response to a piece of surprising news is a time-honored comedy tradition. But I have severe doubts whether Oscar Wilde would approve of inserting that sort of schtick into one of his witty, sophisticated plays. Alas, this production includes just such a moment, which is a pretty strong indictment of director Michael Addison's approach to the masterful text. No audience members were drenched the night I attended, but the play took a bath.

A former artistic director of the Berkeley-based California Shakespeare Festival, Addison must have seemed a natural choice to stage this classic comedy, which is full of witty epigrams and subversive observations about Victorian-era English society. But the production lacks the sense of style that Wilde demands. The pace is sluggish, the line deliveries largely devoid of archness. Designer Gary Wissman seems to understand the play much better than Addison does; his beautifully detailed sets force the actors to stay at the front of the stage, giving the effect of an artificial, two-dimensional world.

The actors contribute admirably vivid characterizations; the women do so best. Carolyn Palmer is charmingly giddy as 18-year-old Cecily, and Johanna McKay is quite formidable as the somewhat older Gwendolyn. One can easily see this character growing up into her mother, the fierce Lady Bracknell (played here by Susan Clark, who could be just a bit more forceful and intimidating). As Jack, Joseph Fuqua is tightly wound and exasperated most of the time, which suits the character surprisingly well. Brian McDonald is not entirely convincing as the idle aristocrat Algernon; he seems to be assuming an attitude rather than living it. Dramaturge William Keeler has written a fascinating essay for the program book, describing the changing social and economic conditions of the period. It helps put the play into an interesting new context and could serve as a starting point for a stronger production than this one.

"The Importance of Being Earnest," presented by the Rubicon Theatre Company at The Laurel, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Wed. 7 p.m. Thu.-Fri. 8 p.m. Sat. 2 & 8 p.m. Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 28-Mar. 28. $25-45. (805) 667-2900.