What exactly is the price or the reward for seeing a classic farcical masterpiece perhaps one too many times? That is the question that has to be asked even when a renowned and respected play is presented with style, acted with panache, and directed with unerring attentiveness. The answer: You sit in your seat respectfully and are mildly diverted and occasionally amused as you wait patiently for the surprise that never happens. This is what it was like sitting through another quite respectable if also unexceptional revival of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Totally without a moral, “The Importance of Being Earnest” was apparently intended by its author, Oscar Wilde, to simply recapture the unbridled joy and jollity of Restoration comedy, not an insignificant objective. It has survived the test of time due to its wit, its totally nonsensical plot, and an almost reckless number of giddy allusions. Written in 1895 and home to such juicy tidbits as “Divorces are made in Heaven” and “In married life three is company and two is none,” it treats Victorian morality with the sort of saturnalian touch only Oscar at his wildest could envision.
Thanks to the Roundabout Theater Company, we now have the opportunity to see the always laudable Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell in the role he played at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2009. En travesti, the always admirable and adventurous Bedford courageously condescends to the imperiously haughty demands of the role. That he is also the play’s director attests to his stability as well as his ability to control the pretentious affectations of a fine and attractive company.
That a critic with too many Earnests under his belt might not be as engaged to laugh at the brittle and oh-so-familiar text as would someone being introduced to it for the first time, the humor of this almost illusive satire remains admittedly a model of its kind. If the plot, which deals with the not too profound subject of mistaken identities, doesn’t seem as ingeniously fresh or as refreshing as it once was, there are compensations.
Two idiotic bachelor friends, wooing their loves through incredibly complex petti-fogging and machinations, reveal Victorian social conceits and deceits in probably the most lighthearted manner ever dramatized. If a generally subdued praise is due to the basic elements from acting to direction, it has to be stated that the design of this production is of the highest order. The three settings and all the costumes are the creation of Desmond Heeley, and they are stunning, particularly an orchid-hued gown and hat worn by Sara Topham as Gwendolen, and the trellised garden scene bedecked with yellow and pink roses.
I’m sure that in subtitling his comedy, “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” Wilde didn’t mean for it to be trivialized. Bedford takes this quite seriously, as there is no indication either by him or by any of the supporting company that they might be on the verge of over-stepping the bounds of good taste. Evidently considerable effort and consideration has gone into discouraging anything that might reduce the comedy’s demanding style to gross or excessive exaggeration. If anything, Bedford’s vision for the performers would suit the demands of a drawing room comedy in any era.
As often as not in executing the Wilde-ian tone and temperament, the men can appear annoyingly and cloyingly foppish. This is not the case with David Furr’s strappingly masculine John Worthing. Although Santino Fontana, as Algernon Moncrieff, sails through the play with a perpetual smirk on his face, his performance dutifully reflects the character’s constant state of well-mannered self-satisfaction.
Charlotte Parry continues a long-standing tradition of embroidering Worthing’s ward, Cecily Cardew, with a gently giddy and quirky disposition. Sara Topham is making an impressive Broadway debut as an exceedingly superficial but lovely-to-look-at Gwendolen Fairfax, betrothed to John.
While designer Heeley keeps Bedford weighted down with grand chapeaux and haute couture, he has dressed Cecily and Gwendolen with more affectionate delicacy. But no one can compete with the snappy suits that Algernon wears with great flair. Dana Ivey, as Cicely’s governess, Miss Prism, and Paxton Whitehead, as Rev. Canon Chasuble, reverentially reflect the drolly conservative aspects of their roles.
Almost by universal acclaim, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is considered the apex of Oscar Wilde’s stage works. Perhaps those overly familiar with the play may take pause and wonder now what all the fuss is about. However, those unfamiliar with the play should find very little to fuss about. ***
“The Importance of Being Earnest,” through Sunday, March 6, the Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. $67 to $117. 212-239-6200.