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Theater review: The wit's the thing in 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

For years I've wanted somebody to put on Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." With the production that opens May 18 at the Underground, we finally get to see the wittiest play in the English language in Duluth.

John Worthing (Jason Scorich) has come to town to propose to Gwendolen Fairfax (Louisa Scorich), cousin of his best friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Mike Pederson). Worthing leads a double life, as the steadfast Jack caring for his young ward, Cecily Cardew (Kitara Peterson) in the country — but as his wastrel younger brother "Ernest" when in the city.

For his part, Algernon has an imaginary invalid friend named "Bunbury" he pretends to visit to avoid unwanted social obligations.

Gwendolen is willing to marry only because Jack's name is Ernest, a name that "seems to inspire absolute confidence," but which is not his true Christian name. However, her imposing mother, Lady Bracknell (Ellie Martin), finds it highly objectionable that Jack was abandoned by his parents and found in "A handbag!" in Victoria Station.

Meanwhile, Algy arrives in the country and introduces himself to Cecily as Jack's brother Ernest. Then things start to get confused and complex in turn.

Director Anika Thompson has her cast forgo the British dry-as-toast delivery of Wilde's bon mots for something more familiar to a contemporary American audience. Algy and Jack are often amused by their own wit, and there is some physical comedy upon which good Queen Victoria would have frowned, but which the audience ate up.

Pederson contends with his flailing mop of hair more than he should, but he and Jason Scorich certainly drive home Wilde's humor. Louisa Scorich brings a musicality to every syllable she utters, while Peterson delightfully gets to go over the top periodically. The ladies and gents are equally funny.

Martin as Lady Bracknell has fun barking her views and disapproval at one, at all. Tammy Ostrander plays the reluctant ex-governess, ex machina Miss Prism, Dan Maki is the eager-to-please Rev. Chasuble, and Paul McGlynn does double duty as the pair of man servants.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" is the wittiest play because you have the caustic but casual indifference to society and its mores of Jack and Algernon, and Lady Bracknell's solemnly absurd pronouncements, all leavened with quotable epigrams that usually have absolutely nothing to do with either the plot or the characters of the play.

Furthermore, the play is resplendent in it use of puns (the play's working title was "Lady Lancing"), and why some might consider that low comedy, in Wilde's hands it is a high art form. The funniest conversation comes when the boys discuss the eating of small domed cakes made from batter or dough.

A quartet of floor-to-ceiling flats pivot to provide the backdrop in turn for Algernon's flat in town and the garden of the Jack's Manor House in the country. The costumes are quite excellent and I especially liked the stylish coiffures of the Fairfax ladies.

If you go:

• What: "The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People" by Oscar Wilde

• Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.

• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through May 27

• Tickets: $20 adults, $18 students at duluthunderground.org

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