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Theater Review: Wilde's Wit Shines Through in 'Earnest'

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is devilishly tricky to pull off. With its farcical plot and arch, stylized language, it takes a certain aplomb to sail through it, particularly when the battleship known as Lady Bracknell steams into view.

The current production at Northern Stage, which runs through Feb. 24 at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, mostly gets it right, although there’s a tendency by some of the actors to anticipate and then telegraph the cleverness of the lines, which has the effect of making Wilde seem heavy-handed, rather than delightful.

Not that it’s easy to deliver some of the best-known quips in the English theater: Wilde, a master of the epigram, flicked his barbs so lightly that the victim often didn’t register the poison dart until it had sunk in deep.

And in The Importance of Being Earnest, which he called a “trivial comedy for serious people,” he takes aim at any number of Victorian sacred cows, from marriage to the English class system to childbirth to the delusions of romantic love, while also poking fun at Victorian melodrama with its fondness for long-lost heirs, jaw-dropping revelations and chaste, unrequited love.

Bachelor Jack Worthing adores Gwendolyn Fairfax, daughter of Lady Bracknell. His best friend Algernon Moncrieff falls in love with Worthing’s ward, the fetching Cecily Cardew. There’s a straw man named Bunbury, a confusion of identities, a humorless governess Miss Prism, a mild-mannered cleric Reverend Chasuble and two long-suffering servants.

Wilde was a terrific success as a playwright and public personality, but he also suffered the ignomimy later in life of being branded and then jailed for homosexuality. In the class in which he circulated, it was the public scandal, not necessarily the private behavior, that rankled convention. So while the play is frothy on the surface, it is pointed in its observations about the facades people assume in life, the secrets they guard, and the strain of maintaining them.

This production, directed by Carol Dunne, the artistic director of the New London Barn Playhouse, is effervescent and expertly paced. It has the virtue of having in the role of Lady Bracknell Northern Stage’s producing director Catherine Doherty, who dons the impregnable armor of a society dowager.

She knows that the best way to deliver Lady Bracknell’s absurd pronouncements is to play them absolutely straight, and with all seriousness. The minute an actor comments on the comedy in any way, the humor falls flat.

And that’s what happens with the actors Matthew Cohn, who plays Algernon Moncrieff, and Talene Monahan, who plays the ingenue Cecily Cardew. They’re talented, charismatic young actors, but there are moments when they can’t resist mugging to the audience, sending significant looks the audience’s way or speaking with exaggerated, aren’t-I-clever diction, which makes Wilde seem too hammy, and undercuts their own considerable comic skill.

As Gwendolyn, Alexis Hyatt finds the right balance between offended Victorian propriety and shivery entrancement with the promise of love; and she also subtly and amusingly conveys the fact that Gwendolyn is very much her mother’s daughter. Brough Hansen is suitably earnest as Jack Worthing and although his part isn’t as showy as Algernon’s, he deftly locates the absurdity in Worthing’s stolidity.

M. Carl Kaufman is the picture of muddled confusion as the not-very-bright Reverend. Despite aging make-up, Kasey Brown is, I think, too young to play the stern Miss Prism, on whom the entire plot turns. But as a whole the production is elegantly staged and gives life to Wilde’s delicious comic imagination.

For tickets and information go to www.northernstage.org or call the Northern Stage box office at 802-296-7000.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.