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Perhaps "The Importance of Being Earnest" is the perfect comedy of manners for a fake-news era.
After all, listening to the deliciousness of Oscar Wilde's bon mots, gamely delivered, is better than losing another hour dissecting the latest "Bunburying" realities of the Twitterer-in-Chief.
As referenced by Wilde's clever title, this theatrical chestnut is mostly about characters who aren't at all interested in being earnest. Pinnacle Acting Company's stripped-down production is undergirded by its own earnestness, thanks to its quick-witted pacing.
This production's sturdy, even unlikely acting pairings mostly overcome some of the age problems of the casting. Max Huftalin's rakish Algernon Moncrieff enjoys upsetting Jared Larkin's more earnest-seeming Jack Worthing. Huftalin particularly shines in his character's most familiar farcical routines involving cucumber sandwiches and tea muffins. That he didn't spit-take while choking down those bites on opening night is a marvel.
Larkin's Jack is lovingly upstaged by his colorful fiancée, Melanie Nelson's dramatic Gwendolen Fairfax, her delivery as archly over-the-top as her costumes. As a daughter, Nelson's Gwendolen is topped in turn by her diva of a mother, Anne Cullimore Decker's Lady Bracknell.
Decker deserves her own paragraph, and in this review, she's getting one. Or maybe three.
Of course, as an arts advocate she has mentored just about everyone in the local arts world, including me. Her generosity aside, it's nearly impossible for most of us to earnestly evaluate her performance without hearing the rich cadences of her past standout stage turns.
But why try when she's so masterfully game? She's having such grand fun in this most classic of dowager comedic stage turns that it's hard to believe she hasn't played this Wilde woman before. There are so many comedic sparks in the actor's well-earned pauses that you can almost feel the laugh, rolling in like humidity, as it is gathering in the audience.
Betsy West's Miss Prism, the uptight governess with a secret, is another of the show's rich comedic gifts. (She's double cast in the role with Hannah Minshew.) Suni Gigliotti as Cecily Cardew, Jack's ward, is foolishly delightful.
Overall, perhaps the best metaphor for this show is how director L.L. West has squeezed the most dramatic energy out of a minimalist set, while joyfully overcoming the challenges of arena staging.
That's evidenced by the play's two manservants, whose unsettling entrances and exits find new angles in Wilde's comedy. There's Tyler Palo's Lane, whose gloved hands expertly balance a silver tray while constantly keeping his employer ever-so-efficiently off-guard. And it would be a spoiler to say much about Merriman, credited in the program as Leo Raptly, whose butler character displays the mincing seriousness of a physical clown. (You could amuse yourself all night by tracking the blocking of the actors via the X's and O's of a football coach's playbook.)
"The truth is rarely pure and never simple," as Algernon famously quips. This story is a bauble, without a lot of bite to its farce. And yet this cast is simply having so much fun, it purely should be enough to offer this: You might, too.
'The Importance of Being Earnest'
A game cast explores new entrances and exits in Pinnacle Acting Company's stripped-down production.
When • Reviewed opening night June 15; continues Friday and Saturday, June 23-24, and June 30-July 1, at 7:30 p.m.; and matinee Saturday, June 24, at 2 p.m.
Where • Dumke Student Black Box Theatre, Jewett Center for the Performing Arts, Westminster College, 1250 E. 1700 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15-$18, with group discounts; http://www.pinnacleactingcompany.org
Also • A literary discussion will follow the matinee performance on Saturday, June 24