As part of a set of wealthy characters who have far too much free time, two young men each invent a false friend to use as an excuse to avoid the social obligations which, even for them, are too boring. Algernon Moncrieff has invented a sickly friend name Bunbury, whose bedside must be frequently attended. Algernon's city chum Ernest reveals to Algernon that his real name is John Worthing and "Ernest" is his self-invented bad-boy brother used as an excuse for frequent absences from his country family (to socialize with friends in the city). To complicate things, Worthing wants to marry Algernon's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax and, by act two, Algernon wants to marry Worthing's young ward Cecily Cardew. The last twist that can be given without spoiling anything is that both frivolous young ladies want - no, must - marry a man named Ernest. The machinations necessary to bring about a happy ending, without tarnishing anyone's social status, are presented by Wilde with head-shaking hilarity.
A solid cast is in place for this Earnest, led by Douglas Harmsen as John Worthing. Harmsen has appeared in several Public productions, playing a memorable Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Here he is equally engaging, bringing a believability to Worthing (something that's hard to do for any character in such a farce). As Worthing's cohort, Antony Hagopian's Algernon is considerably less grounded, as Hagopian goes for a foppish take on the witty and clever bachelor (perhaps to hide the fact that the actor is a tad too old for the role). The two contrast well, though Hagopian could hold back a bit. The two young ladies are delightful: Jordan Simmons, as the anxious Gwendolen, and Winslow Corbett as the young and fanciful Cecily. The prize role of Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn's mother and Algernon's aunt, is taken by Jenny Sterlin, who brings haughtiness to a new level (how far can one look down one's nose?). More laughs could have been had with a less harsh take on this role.
Supplementing this harmonious ensemble are the always adept Terry Wickline as Governess Miss Prism and Robert Haley who, as Rev. Chasuble, brings a smile with a simple pose or whimsical expression. All work well together, with director Ted Pappas's even pace and resolute structure containing the frenzy well for the most part. Except for a few instances of over-exaggeration, when moderate would do, Wilde's text is served well, as is the audience for all three acts.
A perplexing component is James Noone's black, white and shades of grey set design. The settings, Algernon's city flat and two locations at the country house, are set and appointed sufficiently, but with a complete lack of color, contributing nothing to the tone of the production. David R. Zyla's detailed and impeccable costumes are colorful, but not so much as to bring a pointed contrast to the sets.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues through February 19 at the O'Reilly Theatre, 621 Penn Ave. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org or the box office.