Two lines from "The Importance of Being Earnest" particularly apply to the bright, colorful and very funny production currently at Connecticut Repertory Theatre.
One is at the very start of the play, when the fun-loving city-boy Algernon Moncrieff learns that his friend Ernest Worthing has a secret identity: a country gentleman named Jack.
"You look as if your name is Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life." Indeed, UConn acting student Nick Nudler looks just as Ernest should look: immaculately dressed, chipper, a touch querulous but otherwise in control.
Likewise, versatile New York actor Stephon Pettway is a fine voice for the frisky, flip Algernon.
Later in the play, when Jack's fiance Gwendolyn (chic, beatifuly amusing Tabatha Gayle) is peppering Jack with questions about his odd secrets and real intentions, she accepts one excuse this way: "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing."
It is gravely important that any production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" be as funny as possible. The jokes about society, status, marriage, parenting, education and pastry-eating need to be savored.
Yet there's a common problem with productions of "The Importance of Being Earnest" that could not have been foreseen when this laugh-a-minute comedy was first staged, to immediate acclaim, in London in 1895. How do you acknowledge that shortly after the premiere of what has become one of the most admired comedies ever, its author would be convicted for the then-crime of being homosexual, spend the next few years in prison, lose his fortune and fame and social standing, and die a broken man?
The martyrdom of Oscar Wilde is a real comedy-killer. I've seen productions of "Earnest" that were played bittersweet, virtually daring audiences to laugh. Others gave the play a resentful tone of heterosexual privilege. Its characters, after all, are infatuated with the idea of marriage. They crave status and claim to abhor scandal, though in their travels and in their diaries they love to deceive.
Jean Randich, a director I followed avidly when she ran the Yale Summer Cabaret and attended the Yale School of Drama in the early '90s, has found a way to make "The Importance of Being Earnest" as funny as it should be while still touting Oscar Wilde's importance as a queer icon. The classic three-act structure is maintained. The lines are carefully enunciated for maximum comic impact. The casting is color-blind, which befits an enlightened institution such as UConn, but in terms of age and gender the actors are appropriate to their roles.
Nothing is allowed to distract from the belief that this play is a comedy. It's not a litmus test, or an ironic statement, or a bringdown. It's not stuffy. It's funny. Really funny. On opening night, the actors were still learning how long they had to wait for the laughter to subside before they could safely speak again. Sometimes they were waiting a very long time.
The cast has control of the famous epigraphs, as when Lady Bracknell (Broadway veteran Liz McCartney, dottily domineering) intones austerely that "to lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." Ernest/Jack's ward Cecily (peppy UConn senior Gillian Rae Pardi) has a way with innocent-ingenue lines like "I have never met any really wicked person before. I feel rather frightened. I am so afraid he will look like everyone else."
The actors also get deserved chuckles from how they enunciate certain phrases like "passionate celibacy" and "semi-recumbent posture."
It's on the edges of the show where Randich and her design team — sets by Pedro Guevara, lighting by Danielle Verkennes, sound by Teddy Carraro, costumes by Taowen Pan — let some new-school excellence creep in. While the actors sit in period furniture appropriate to the play's turn-of-the 20th-century setting, the backdrop for the first act is a splashy postmodern painting. The second act is an abstract garden setting with green rugs representing grass, balloons cascading from above, and a greenhouse so small that the actors have to duck down to go inside it.
Some will see these design fillips as expressionist, or as dreamlike abstraction. They certainly brighten the stage and inspire the actors to be more active.
This "Importance of Being Earnest" doesn't want to be earnest. It wants to be funny. It celebrates and educates, but not at the expense of well-timed comic business.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST runs through Oct. 15 at UConn's Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Road, Storrs. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; plus a Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on Oct. 14 and 15. Tickets are $10 to $35. Details at 860-486-2113, crt.uconn.edu.