THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST by Oscar Wilde, directed by Ben Barnes (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill). To September 5. $18-$54. See Continuing, this page. 416-866-8666. Rating: NN Rating: NN
The Importance Of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde 's classic comedy of manners, should be crisp and clear. Soulpepper 's production isn't. Damien Atkins sets a strange tone as man-about-town Algernon. He and his best friend, Jack ( Kevin Bundy ), must be rechristened (in name if not nature) in order to woo two ladies determined to love a man named Earnest. In a sophomoric characterization like a cross between a colt and a young Prince Charles, Atkins awkwardly manoeuvres around the huge divan that dominates Peter Hartwell 's design.
Other members of the young cast follow Atkins's lead, acting on a collectively unchecked impulse to proclaim Wilde's wicked one-liners instead of speaking to one another through them.
Their arch delivery and posh mannerisms, particularly those of Atkins and Samantha Espie as Algernon's beloved Cecily, distract from the action instead of adding to it. Fey English accents only compound their troubles, making liftoff all but impossible through the second and third acts.
More mature cast members have the confidence to let the script lead them. As the indomitable Lady Bracknell, Nancy Palk brings strength and certainty to the stage, peering out from under her grotesque feathered hat with haughty disdain.
Her performance, alongside Brenda Robins 's gangly Miss Prism and David Storch 's butler, Lane, recoups much of what the younger actors fumble, allowing the action to move smoothly from one mistaken identity to the next.
Bundy and Patricia Fagan as Gwendolyn waver between the two modes, sometimes striding confidently through a passage, sometimes dissolving into hammy mugging. They can't decide if they're supposed to be funny or making fun of their characters.
At two and a half hours, with two intermissions splitting the action into three acts, the audience has ample time to wonder why director Ben Barnes chose to interpret Wilde's humour so broadly, with such uneven results.