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Cutting Oscar Wilde’s 1895 classic comedy of manners down to a sleek 90-minute running time is a bold step, but Theatre Above the Law’s current staging, directed by Tony Lawry, manages that task pretty handily. All the greatest Wilde lines (“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train”) are retained, and Lawry’s staging moves at a generally brisk pace, with clever costume and character changes happening in a flash on the small stage.

The Importance of Being Earnest
Through 5/21: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Mon 5/15 7:30 PM; Jarvis Square Theater, 1439 W. Jarvis, theatreatl.org, $25 (senior/student $20)

Using nonbinary characters is also a good choice, since Wilde’s comedy hinges on the idea of identity being malleable. One of the most intriguing productions I ever encountered of this show was set during the Harlem Renaissance—and Wilde’s Jack Worthing being a different person in the country than in the city has never felt so on point. (Wilde undoubtedly knew plenty about code-switching, as a closeted gay man whose sexual identity—male homosexual activity being illegal in England at the time and for many decades later—provided enough fodder for his enemies to bring about his tragic downfall.)

The issue I have with the production (which still offers plenty of charms for Wilde fans, no question) is that the vagueness of the TATL setting makes the stakes feel inconsequential. Yes, it’s a “trivial comedy for serious people,” as the subtitle proclaims. But there still needs to be some believable obstacles along the way to keep the comic tension bubbling along. It’s fine to remove the story from its original English roots. I for one am always happy to see a production without strained veddy British accents doing the heavy lifting for Wilde’s dialogue—instead, we have Lady Bracknell’s odd pronunciations that delightfully call to mind Catherine O’Hara’s Moira in Schitt’s Creek.

Since we’re not exactly sure what world we’re in, in terms of either time or geography, the proceedings start to feel a little shambolic and random, sometimes to the detriment of the overall story. If a play is meant to send up the hypocrisies and trivialities of society, it helps to know more specifically what the rules for that society are, and that’s what we don’t get here. In short, we’re left with an Oscar’s Greatest Hits package of sorts that works better in parts than as a whole. But the cast is undeniably having a ball, and if it’s been a while since you’ve seen Wilde, this production will certainly remind you of his charms.

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