If Oscar Wilde never cast a man as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, it’s only because he didn’t have Max Robinson at his disposal. With all due respect to the other marvelous performances Robinson has given over the years, this is the part he was born to play.
This instance of cross-gender casting almost overshadows the rest of Pioneer Theatre Company’s very proficient staging of the classic farce, ably directed by Charles Morey. It might be a gimmick in a production that doesn’t need gimmicks, but with Robinson as the imperious old aunt—shaped like a refrigerator box and towering over the other characters both physically and socially—nearly every word that comes out of his mouth is hysterical.
The rest of the cast also finds joy in interpreting Wilde’s grammatically precise sentences, though some of their upper-crust Victorian accents take a little work to interpret. (I suspect real Brits had trouble understanding each other back then, too.) Jeremiah Wiggins leads the all-Equity cast as Algernon, playing him as the fey, hedonistic dandy he ought to be. Patrick Hallahan’s Jack—stiff, responsible and feeling guilty for having created a fictitious rowdy brother named Ernest—complements him nicely.
Jack’s beau Gwendolyn and his foster niece Cecily have one fantastic scene together, in which they believe they are engaged to the same man and their well-bred manners give way to a well-bred catfight. Krista Hoeppner gives Gwendolyn perfect high-society grace mixed with comic silliness, modulating her voice from shrill down to throaty in a way that wrings laughs even from the straight lines. Cecily (Michelle Six), meanwhile, is girlish and petite, but a spitfire when provoked. Again, the pairing is inspired.
Wilde’s pithy, “please-quote-me” absurdities are still funny (or not, if you’re tired of them), made even more so by excellent timing and delivery. You have to be serious about your comedy, of course. Here’s a cast that knows the importance of being funny. —EDS
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Pioneer Theatre Company 300 S. 1400 East Through Oct. 2 581-6961