THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST Peter Hall’s staging sure looks pretty and pretty opulent, which raises the larger question of what our midsize theaters need to do to survive the harrowing era for arts that we’ve all just entered. Like most regional theaters, the Ahmanson is looking backward for both comfort and speed with a celebrity-driven repertory of plays set in bygone times (Dead End, The Drowsy Chaperone and now Ernest) — what used to be called Boulevard Theater. Who could possibly argue with Oscar Wilde and lines such as, “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life”? There’s not a sincere line in the play, which, in a work about double lives and social deceptions, is part of its brilliance. You wouldn’t know from Hall’s production that Wilde was tortured to death in prison for his homosexuality, and that his irreverence and humanity paved the way for Joe Orton. You wouldn’t know this because no trouble has been taken in Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon’s production design to get beyond some stock country-house arches and a rose garden. And no trouble has been taken by Hall to do much beyond fulfill expectations of what Ernest has always looked and sounded like. Lynn Redgrave’s Lady Bracknell displays contagious glee in the way she contorts her lips around Wilde’s lovely epigrams, and spits them out. The problem with this, however, as with the ensemble, is a kind of over-articulated stiffness, particularly by James Waterston’s Jack Worthing. Robert Petkoff’s Algernon fares better, as do Bianca Amato as Gwendolen and the particularly wry and rueful Charlotte Parry as Cecily. When Miriam Margolyes’ rotund Miss Prism shows up, we’re suddenly in Nicholas Nickleby: With the physical humor amped up, other actors’ eyes start bulging in reaction, as though they, and we, have been poked in the ribs. At least it’s refreshing, even if it’s part of a completely different production. If ever there was an era of double lives and doublespeak, we’re in the middle of it. How can a play originally so subversive look so insulated and antique? Probably from the double curse of fear and self-satisfaction. Wilde deserves better, and so do we. Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. (no eve perfs Feb. 5, 19 & March 5; added 2 p.m. perfs Feb. 16 & March 2); thru March 5. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris)
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