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Sunday, 23 January 2011 12:34

Broadway Review: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

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Sara Topham, David Furr and Brian Bedford (l-r) Sara Topham, David Furr and Brian Bedford (l-r) Photo: Joan Marcus

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is as beautiful as it is witty.  This production is a transfer from Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival.  Brian Bedford’s performance as Lady Bracknell is not the first of its kind, but it certainly is one of a kind.  His gender-bending portrayal of Lady Bracknell is played for real.  I’m delighted to say that it is short on camp and long on laughs.  Mr. Bedford contorts his face into grimaces and calls on a vocal range that goes from basso profundo to most lady-like to give this Lady Bracknell a hilarious air.  

In his role as director, Mr. Bedford has deftly directed this production with perfect pace and the necessary articulation.  In The Importance of Being Earnest, subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, young Algernon opens the play by welcoming his friend Jack (who he knows as Ernest Worthing) into his home.  Santino Fontana gives a beguiling performance as the mischievous man of leisure, Algernon.  You may recall his marvelous performance as Stanley in last season’s short-lived Brighton Beach Memoirs which earned him a Drama Desk Award.    Jack (haughtily played by David Furr) just happens to be dating Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen and he has arrived to propose to her.  Gwendolen, a priggish copy of her mother, Lady Bracknell, is assuredly played by Sara Topham.  Her Gwendolen assumes the uprightness of Eliza Doolittle at the Embassy Ball.  Despite Jack’s best intentions he will still have to get past Lady Bracknell if he intends to marry Gwendolen.  While she interrogates him about his pedigree we learn that he was raised by someone who found him in a handbag in the cloak room of Victoria Station (thankfully, the Brighton Line).  What Gwendolen doesn’t know is that the person she knows as Earnest is living a double life as Jack in the country and his rogue brother Earnest in the city.  His brother Earnest’s behaviour is Jack’s cover for his visits to the city.

We move from Algernon’s drawing room to the garden at Jack’s manor where his ward, the lovely Cecily, played with particular petulance by Charlotte Parry, is studying with her tutor, Miss Prism.  The punctilious Miss Prism is perfectly played by theatre doyenne, Dana Ivey.  As her quasi-paramour, the Reverend Canon Chasuble, Paxton Whitehead is a perfect fit for the celibate, yet randy reverend.  As the reverend takes Miss Prism for a brief walk, enter Algernon declaring himself to be Jack’s ne'er-do-well brother Earnest .  Cecily is immediately smitten by this alleged Victorian bad-boy and soon the two are engaged to be married.  Exit “Earnest” and enter Gwendolen.  Cecily and Gwendolen engage in a superficial, two-cheek-kissing, tête à tête that is sickeningly saccharin until they discover that they both appear to be engaged to the same man, Earnest.  The scene that follows is worthy of Alexis and Krystal Kerrington.  You expect the two to be rolling around on the floor tearing each other to bits as they each pull out their diaries to prove that Earnest did indeed propose to them, but they remain in control through gritted teeth.

Jack returns dressed in mourning garb declaring that his brother Earnest has passed.  This comes as a bit of a shock to those who have just witnessed his brother Earnest’s arrival in the form of Algernon.  Ultimately all the confusion is cleared up and a long-held family secret is revealed that clears up Jack’s claim of being found in a hand-bag in Victoria station.  As for his intentions of marrying Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell is intent on putting the kibosh on that.  That is until she is informed of the dowry that comes with marrying the young Cecily, a princely sum of one hundred and thirty thousand pounds.  The only problem is, Jack won’t give his permission for his ward to marry Algernon unless Lady Bracknell gives her permission for him to marry Gwendolen.  And, as if you need to be told this, they all live happily-ever-after.  

The production is beautifully designed (sets and costumes) by Desmond Heeley.  Mr. Heeley won Tony Awards for Best Costumes and Best Sets in 1968 for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  I believe that he is the only designer to have ever won a Tony for both sets and costumes for the same play.  Despite an eye-sore of a vase in the first act (it was huge, check out the photos below), Heeley has created two gorgeous interiors and one garden setting.  His Victorian costumes are the cherry on the sundae of his set.  

In the wrong hands Wilde’s epigrams could land with a thud.  Thankfully that isn’t the case with this production.  The cast and its director have seen to that.  There is not a weak link in the lot.  Bedford’s performance as Bracknell is sure to be a strong contender in June.  I’m so pleased that Roundabout has resoundingly redeemed themselves after last falls lack-luster production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

Additional Info

  • Theatre: American Airlines Theater
  • Theatre Address: 227 West 42nd St. New York, NY 10036
  • Show Style: Play
  • Previews:: December 17, 2010
  • Opening Night: January 13, 2011
  • Closing: March 6, 2011
Last modified on Saturday, 26 March 2011 19:38

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