ACT's MFA program tackles Oscar Wilde's comic masterpiece under the direction of Steve Cosson. As a showcase for the actors, it's relatively successful. Naomi Peters as Gwendolyn and Atosa Babaoff as Cecily approach perfection in their roles, employing impeccable timing. Their extended second-act duet leaves you giddy with pleasure as their relationship progresses through delighted new acquaintances, disdainful adversaries, and, finally, the sisterhood of injuriously deceived women. Rachel Black hilariously lends Miss Prism a backbone so stiff that the slightest shock threatens to topple her: Each naughty thing Cecily says, every plot reversal, registers as a physical blow to poor Miss Prism. Chris Stebnitz's unctuous Dr. Chasuble drools his sibilants comically, and Chan Casey, in drag as Lady Bracknell, turns a stunt into a real feat. He's a cross between Julia Child and Edith Evans, harrumphing critically at the failings of the younger generation and British society as a whole. But Stafford Clark-Price as Algy and Gregory Harr as Jack mostly stand still and regurgitate their lines, trampling many of Wilde's funniest epigrams. Clark-Price wears his costumes elegantly, but he rushes through the dialogue in the first act, and gives little life to his nonspeaking moments. (He improves in the last two acts.) Harr moves stiffly, unlike the man of leisure and prankster Jack should be. He appears to be playing the role mistakenly, as a much older, blustery statesman. The worst transgression against the play occurs when Cosson stages the second-act muffin-eating scene: Clark-Price and Harr speak with their mouths full and purposefully spew fountains of crumbs over each other -- the custom in drawing rooms all over Victorian Britain, I'm sure. Despite some great performances and the blissful sequence between Gwendolyn and Cecily, this production is hampered by its leading men and Cosson's anything-for-a-laugh recklessness.
Through Dec. 15. Admission is $5-10; call 749-2228.
Magic Theater, Fort Mason, Building D, Buchanan & Marina, S.F.