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All words: Riley Croghan

Timing is the essence of comedy, and it’s clear that timing was very much in mind as Shakespeare Theatre Company set about designing their 2013 season. “The Importance of Being Earnest” remains one of Wilde’s most-staged plays, even as the British aristocracy it lampoons has faded into oblivion. “Downton Abbey” has brought those concerns back into the consciousness of modern America, and as the show slides further into a relentlessly serious take on increasingly silly, soapy plots, the time is ripe for a play like “Earnest” to show off just how frivolous those self-serious high society types could be.

With this in mind, director Keith Baxter has the younger characters in the cast acting much like children in STC’s new show. As Algernon Moncrieff, Anthony Roach stomps around in his opulent gold London flat, flops himself over the back off his couch, and bats playfully at a punching bag he has placed in the middle of his living room. A few lines between his character and Gregory Woodell’s Jack Worthing are rendered incomprehensible in the second act as they are delivered with mouths full of muffins. And in most of her scenes with the two lead men, Katie Fabel plays up Cecily’s childlike naivety, as the character allows herself to be blissfully led on in wide-eyed trust of the two scheming gentlemen’s wild lies.
The best moments of the production, though, are those that come when the characters employ the skills the aristocracy used best. Cecily progresses from playground antics to delicious high school viciousness in her delicious riposte with Vanessa Morosco’s Gwendolyn. The two fight poisonously under the pretense of speaking only with politeness toward each other, with acid smiles plastered on all the while. And of course, decked out in costume designer Robert Perdziola’s puffy blue dress that is surely a sly nod to Maggie Grace’s dowager countess, Sian Phillips delivers some of the best lines of the night as she expresses stodgy indignation at anyone who appears to be stepping out of line of the way she expects them to act.

In this way, although the play bills with its own subtitle that it is a “trivial comedy for serious people,” the production shines most when it takes inspiration from “Downton,” which might be called a serious drama for silly people. The two sets designed by Simon Higlett set the stage with pure examples of Wilde’s darling Aetheticism, where opulence, beauty and wit are valued above all else, especially substance. The production mostly hews itself to those same ideals, and is at its best in those decadent, witty, and unironic moments.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” runs now through March 9 at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Tickets start at $20.