No comedy was ever less dependent on plot mechanics for its laughs than Oscar Wilde's 1895 masterpiece "The Importance of Being Earnest." A nearly unbroken stream of cool and clarifying wit, it is a piece of music more than a play, with its brilliant dialogue, as critic Eric Bentley pointed out, running in "ironic counterpoint with the absurdities of the action."
The silly plot is too prominent and the counterpoint not very crisp in director Peter Hall's middling, faintly tedious production of "Earnest," now making a stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre. It's partly a casting problem: In the key role of Jack, the humorless foundling who leads a double life for disappointingly unscandalous reasons, James Waterston has a promisingly stiff, lanky physique, but he struggles strenuously with his English accent and hits one tiresome note of effortful indignance throughout. To paraphrase the play's Lady Bracknell, he looks everything and has nothing.
Speaking of Lady Bracknell, here's another hitch. In the role of Wilde's hilariously severe grande dame, Lynn Redgrave cuts a spry, grasping, almost athletic figure. She wrings the comic juice from Bracknell's lines by pulling long faces and modulating her voice from exaggerated nasal sarcasm to a raspy shout. If Lady Bracknell is meant to suggest a slow-moving but fully armed battleship, Redgrave, the trains of her luxuriant gowns swishing behind her, is more like a speedboat leaving a wake. She looks like she's having a marvelous time of it, but, again to paraphrase Bracknell, feeling well and acting well are not quite the same thing.
Redgrave could take a lesson in economy of comic gesture from Miriam Margolyes, who makes a tidy meal of her role as the doddering governess, Miss Prism. Margolyes is funny just taking a catnap, but when she rises to cross the stage or to flirt awkwardly with the local rector, Chasuble (Terence Rigby), she moves like a wind-up teapot with twitchy arms, and she gives her lines a bright, eccentric pop. As her cheerfully inattentive student, the callow Cecily, curl-topped Charlotte Parry is similarly attuned to the champagne fizz of Wilde's dialogue: "What an impetuous boy he is!" she exclaims. "I like his hair so much."
The fine-haired boy in question is Algernon, the unapologetic epicurean who gets most of the play's best aphorisms and consumes most of its food. In this plum role, the blandly pleasant Robert Petkoff comes off like Kenneth Branagh-lite, which is to say he barely registers at all. And as his calculating cousin Gwendolen, who's enamored of the stiff Jack under false pretenses, Bianca Amato savors her punch lines with a bit too much lip-smacking relish. Wilde's burbling chamber music doesn't need a vaudeville slide trombone to signpost its gags.
Indeed, overstatement is a liability endemic to Hall's entire production. The design by Kevin Rigdon and Trish Rigdon is expansive, generically lovely and utterly false. Perhaps the best thing to say for this mediocre "Earnest" is that it's certain to drive us back to the ever-fresh original text for another look.
The Importance of Being Earnest. Written by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Peter Hall. Through May 14 at BAM's Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. Tickets $30-$85. Call 718-636-4100. Seen Wednesday.