Pinero's "The Magistrate" is one of those 19th-century English farces tempting to major London stars but done infrequently here. With Louis Turenne as guest artist, the Hartke Theatre presents it with considerable understanding from director Joseph Lewis and his Catholic University student cast. The run continues through Dec. 10.

Style here is essential, and a gravity from its performers vital. So is the art of "asides," where characters address the audience directly. The technique is generally outside our realistic theater, though Thornton Wilder's enduring plays employ it with great wit.

While Pinero, to Shaw's approval, would later venture into such "unpleasant" dramas as "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray" and "The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith," "The Magistrate" put this reformed lawyer into the hit playwright class of 1885. In the decade after leaving the bar, Pinero had learned about playwriting by acting.

In "The Magistrate," Pinero breaks ground the hyperactive Feydeau would follow in France.Early widowed, Agatha tells her second husband, the magistrate, that she is 31 though actually she is 36, making it necessary to claim that her 19-year-old son, Farrington, is 14 -- a delicate gap wherein parlor maids and piano teachers can prove tempting. The youth leads his stepfather into a naughty Hotel des Princes where, in an adjacent room, Agatha is imploring an old friend to keep her secret.

Absurd, of course. But note how humanity does not change. People still refuse to tell obvious truths, still deny their ages and still push themselves into unbelievable jams. Pinero draws the fun from this maze of genteel hypocrisies.

Astutely, Lewis does not allow his cast to push. Led by the experienced Turenne, all take themselves most seriously. Sahrie Valerio's Agatha and Denise Correa's sister Charlotte are very neat about this, and Joseph P. Normile does the 19-year-old lad with sparkle. A mark of the cast's control, in a minor role, is the relaxed Sgt. Lugg of Blaise Corrigan, who has the wit to recognize that a small part is not a bad one.

More than an opportunity to learn about theater, "The Magistrate" reminds us of lasting human frailties in humorous, absurdist terms.