The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the best-known English-language farces. First performed in 1895, the play tells the tale of Algernon, a dandy who lies about having a sick cousin so he can avoid dealing with his pesky aunt, Lady Bracknell. He discovers that his best friend, Ernest, leads a similar double life, and schemes to woo Earnest's charming young ward, Cecily, while Ernest (whose name is really Jack) tries to find out who his parents are, so he can marry Gwendolyn, Lady Bracknell's daughter. Done right, it's a mad-cap romp through late Victorian social niceties and gender politics.
Unfortunately, neither of the productions currently playing in Los Angeles lives up to the full comedic potential of Oscar Wilde's play.
Staged with a healthy budget and traditionally cast, A Noise Within's production in Pasadena takes a fairly standard approach to the text, staging the play's three acts competently and unabridged. Adam Haas Hunter struts about charmingly, giving Algernon a foppish quality that's compounded by Garry D. Lennon's extravagant costumes. But while the production, helmed by Michael Michetti, delivers modest laughs, it never soars to the comedic heights that the text promises.
On the other end of the spectrum budget-wise is Queer Classics' abridged, more spare production, now playing in Hollywood, which casts Cecily and Gwendolyn as men. While the four leads have a solid grasp of who their characters are at their core, director Casey Kringlen goes for the easy laugh too often, opting for crass staging instead of letting Wilde's words do the heavy lifting. While it's interesting to see the relationships in a same-sex context (which is especially fitting given Wilde's sexual preferences), the choice to stage it with gay couples negates Wilde's razor-sharp insights into gender politics.
It's hard to stage a bad production of Earnest, and both versions now playing in Los Angeles are mildly funny, but the pacing required to keep any farce alive is demanding, and neither of these productions achieve that elusive rhythm consistently.
A Noise Within (3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena); through Nov. 22. ANoiseWithin.org.
Queer Classics at the Lounge Theatres (6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd); through Nov. 16. QueerClassics.com.
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