James Waterston and Lynn Redgrave  in The Importance of Being Earnest
(Photo © Craig Shwartz)
James Waterston and Lynn Redgrave
in The Importance of Being Earnest
(Photo © Craig Shwartz)
Perhaps it's odd to begin a review of Oscar Wilde's perfect comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest, now being presented at BAM, by pointing out that the title contains the phrase "be in gear." Wilde was big on wordplay, but even he was probably not conscious of having inserted this three-word piece of advice into the title of his most frequently performed work.

Nevertheless, the importance of being in gear applies to the participants in any production of Wilde's landmark comedy. It's not, however, something that one need point out to Sir Peter Hall, who could write a book on being in theatrical gear. Over the course of his half-century career, Hall has consistently studied scripts and then made manifest their full potential. His masterful style is to impose no style on a play other than what is intrinsic to it. With this production, he once again demonstrates just how the classics should be done.

The laugh-a-minute Earnest is a comedy wherein, as Hall has stated, the actors must have full control of their breathing. Few pauses are allowed if a cast is to do full justice to Wilde's gorgeously sculpted epigrams; languor may be one of his upper-class characters' traits, but it can never be portrayed languorously.

The company, beginning with Lynn Redgrave as the beloved termagant Lady Bracknell, makes a snazzy showing in this tale of what happens when verbally athletic twits Jack Worthing (James Waterston) and Algernon Moncrieff (Robert Petkoff) get themselves in a spot of bother by pretending to be a couple of swains named Ernest. This ruse is for the benefit of the marriageable women whom they fancy, Gwendolen Fairfax (Bianca Amato) and the innocent but wise Cecily (Charlotte Parry). Wilde contrasts the courtship of the young lovers with a hesitant romance between reprimanding instructress Miss Prism (Miriam Margolyes) and agreeable Reverend Canon Chasuble (the spot-on Terence Rigby).

The play is a devastating send-up of the people Wilde believed were cluttering society. Having decided that a stop had to be put to their inane behavior, he felt that his best strategy was to have them express their emptiness in hilarious exchanges. As he skewered the very people who would lionize him (until the Marquis of Queensberry slander case), Wilde also dropped a few hints about his modus operandi in lines such as: "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is vital." The wag even kids himself obliquely when he has Jack ask Algernon, during one of their conversations, "Is that clever?" Algernon replies, "It is perfectly phrased!"

Speaking of perfect phrasing, Redgrave has it -- but this is nothing new from her, since she's never less than super at whatever she chooses to do. Her Bracknell is just the right combination of curmudgeon, tyrant, and vacuous aristocrat. Interestingly, though she makes every one of her speeches connect, she barely gets out the character's most famous line -- "A handbag?" -- possibly not wanting to compete with Edith Evans's indelible reading of those words. Giving Redgrave a run for the money is Margolyes, whose Prism moves about with the slow splendor of an ocean liner going out to sea. Miss Prism often repeats the warning "You reap what you sow," and what Margolyes reaps is great appreciation for her performance.

The actors who portray the young lovers come up with four portraits of adorable insipidity. Waterston, thin as Jack's walking-stick (and a welcome reminder of his father, Sam), is in such high gear that he's practically in overdrive -- and his dudgeon is within that realm as well. Nonetheless, his assurance is fun to watch. Petkoff, downing cucumber sandwiches hand over fist, has a good time with Algernon's hearty bombast, while Amato and Parry might be renamed Thrust and Parry for the quality of their byplay.

The only team members who aren't completely in gear are the show's creative team. While the sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen is adequate, the production design by Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon disappoints. Jack, whose Half Moon Street digs and Woolton home are seen here, lives more drably than he dresses, while the ladies' outfits have less panache than they display in their dialogue. To the Rigdons' credit, though, they have made arches a prominent architectural detail in both of Jack's abodes. This is appropriate, as Oscar Wilde is nothing if not consistently arch.