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The Importance of Being Earnest

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When Oscar Wilde first submitted The Importance of Being Earnest for production, actor/manager George Alexander did what all actors do when confronted with genius -- he changed the words. He (and Wilde) cut the original four acts down to the three-act version which opened in 1895 and remains the Earnest that everybody does. Since I'm a huge fan of this play, the more acts the merrier, and I'm glad it's the original that The Summer Company is producing.

The most obvious difference between the two is that the original features a character named Gribsby early in the play, and a whole bunch of jokes at the end. All of it is Wilde working in top form, but I understand why, if he had to make cuts, these are the cuts he made.

What I really like about the four-act version, however, is its structural soundness. Anyone who's seen the "regular" Earnest knows how long that second act can be. But Wilde's initial organization of the play's events works beautifully in the four-act form.

But whatever incarnation, Earnest is an enormously difficult show to get right. So much depends on mastering the style of the play and the glory of Wilde's dialogue. Such goals are life-long pursuits; I don't know if you can ever do a "perfect" Earnest. But, at the very least, you shouldn't ever get in the way of it.

And, for the first act, that's just the pitfall that director John E. Lane Jr. and company avoid. The pace may be off and the characters a bit broad, but nobody gets in the way of the work and, on many occasions -- thanks to Brad Stephenson, as Jack, in particular -- we clearly see the reason for this play's reputation.

It's in the second act (and beyond) that things run afoul for The Summer Company. Gimmicky scene-stealing servants, a minor problem in act one, becomes epidemic here. The delicate young ingénue shrieks like a fishmonger's wife while another character gestures like she's landing a plane. And more than once, dropped and paraphrased lines destroy the comedy of Wilde's words.

To be clear, these are not bad actors; though it's true that some have been miscast, it's truer still that all suffer from confounding directorial choices from a director who's usually far stronger.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest continues through Sat., July 26. Peter Mills Theater, Rockwell Hall, Duquesne University. 412-396-4997

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