Oscar Wilde's imperious monster of manners, Lady Bracknell, has a history of being played by men. By that, we mean male actors. Her ladyship would never cede authority to mortal menfolk, even those of her station in the hierarchy of British nobility. But in the person of Scott Hofer at Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, Lady Bracknell in "The Importance of Being Earnest" is not just another drag role played for laughs. Instead, as with Brian Bedford in last year's Broadway triumph, Hofer deploys gender to fortify milady's suit-of-armor authority.

With just one word, "Found!?," for instance, she can reduce a strapping gentleman -- her nephew's friend Jack (he who would be Ernest, as well as earnest) -- to a whimpering foundling. In fact, that is Jack's heritage, which causes Lady Blacknell to impugn his suitability for her daughter Gwendolyn's troth.

As directed by Ken Washington and accessorized on Kaitlin Donelon's indoor-outdoor set by Ronald Green's Victorian dress-up costumes, "Earnest" maintains a tense balance between snob comedy and -- dare we say -- romance. At any moment, we expect Jack, a barely restrained Tom Evans, might be so bold as to kiss quivering Gwendolyn, played by Maryellen Molfetta with harnessed propriety, full on the lips. Cousin Algernon, an impertinent dandy as played by Jordan Hue, and Jack's sweet young ward, Cecily, a flirty Emily Dowdell, find themselves similarly compromised.

Sue Anne Dennehy as Cecily's priggish tutor, Doug Vande-winckel as a randy reverend, plus David Houston and Eugene Dailey as dour servants, complete a likable cast doing honor to Wilde's comic masterpiece. Its "Importance" is not to be missed.

WHAT Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest"

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through April 1, Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St.

INFO $20-$35; smithtown pac.org, 631-724-3700

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