Born to be Wilde 

Theatre in the Square handles Earnest gracefully

In writing The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde did more than construct a work of frivolous perfection with about a thousand witty epigrams. As Theatre in the Square's droll production demonstrates, Wilde also set the template for the friendship of Will and Jack on "Will and Grace."

Like the sitcom characters, the central male pals of Earnest sharply contrast, with the clever, conscientious Jack (Alan Kilpatrick) driven to distraction by the even more clever, pleasure-seeking Algernon (Christopher Ekholm). Though their camaraderie seems based on mutual insults, the actors convey the affection underneath. Each is especially playful for the production, with Kilpatrick proving simultaneously gawky and suave, while the fez-wearing Ekholm follows his acts of snarky behavior with expressions of false innocence.

Directed by Jessica Phelps West, the production brings to mind Algernon's remark: "It's awfully hard work doing nothing." Playing out Wilde's minuet of love and deception, the actors frequently have recurring gestures or actions, like the way Courtney Patterson's Gwendolyn does a little bounce whenever she mentions the fearsome Lady Bracknell (Marianne Fraulo). Set designer Crawford C. Pratt emphasizes the play's light artificiality by constructing the set and most of the props of what appears to be two-dimensional pieces of cardboard: characters stop to smell flowers that are painted on the walls.

Patterson and Joan Croker have an amusing interplay, going from undying friendship to undisguised loathing in mere moments. Fraulo doesn't quite encompass Lady Bracknell's force-of-nature imperiousness, and the production finds fewer of the laughs in her scenes than in the rest of the play (although it gets comic mileage from her oversized bustle). As Wilde's masterpiece, the play may get produced too frequently (I'd like to see some of his other works on a stage sometime), but Theatre in the Square undeniably handles Earnest with grace.

The Importance of Being Earnest plays through April 28 at Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. Tues.-Sat. at 8 p.m. Sun. at 2:30 and 7 p.m. $20-$25. 770-422-8369. www.theatreinthesquare.com.

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