From downtown Washington, a visit to the Round House Theatre (just north of Viers Mill Road in Silver Spring) involves a round trip of about 25 miles -- and all you get for it between now and Nov. 4 is "The Importance of Being Earnest." Nonetheless, it is well worth the trip.
"Earnest," beneath its brittle surface, is one of the few remaining mementoes of the western world's last age of innocence -- before trench warfare, a population explosion and a depression brought even the most sheltered into contact with hard reality. Much is made in Wilde's highly formalized play of the wickedness of the two male protagonists, Jack and Algernon. But really, the most despicable things they have done are to munch a few cucumber sandwiches and proposed marriage.
Performance practice for Oscar Wilde is at least as stylized as it is for Giuseppe Verdi or Gilbert and Sullivan. Voices are always about half an octave above normal conversational pitch, and diction assumes an unnatural clarity to match the flawless syntax.
There are frequent, meaningful pauses in mid-paragraph, to announce that one is about to utter a paradox or an epigram (this happens about once every 45 seconds) and the actors must spend much of their time in stiff, unnatural poses with the elbows at awkward angles. If all this is not done perfectly, it can be quite distasteful. The Round House company does it perfectly, which is not to say that there could not be slight improvements.
There is a fine polish, an exquisite period flavor in the whole production, including the minor roles and the scenery, though it needs more fin-desiecle (clutter).
Thomas Schell was ideal as the handsome wastrel Algernon, and Sandy Spencer agonized properly as Jack. But the most striking performers were the women: Robin Leary as Gwendolen -- a jungle beast with a polite facade -- and Tucker Ewing in the slightly less complex role of Cecily. Not at all subtle, but very funny was June Hansen as Lady Bracknell. The program lists her alone as a member of Actor's Equity, but one has the feeling in this show that she is among peers.