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The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest—Really

By Oscar Wilde
Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, New York City

Saturday, February 19, 2011, Mezzanine C–131&132 (circle left)
Directed by Brian Bedford

Some plays are just too good to ruin. The Importance of Being Earnest is one of them. Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece is more than witty banter among self-centered characters and keen observations on social behavior. Each of the play’s ridiculous plot twists derives from a joke somewhere earlier in the play as Wilde crafts a tapestry of humor that is funny on first encounter and funnier every further step, all progressing to the titular pun that is the play’s final line—a groaner of a pun if ever there was one

While such a play is nigh impossible to ruin, productions vary on how well they deliver all this great wit and wisdom. This production, which originated with the Stratford Festival in Canada, demonstrated both the best way and a "not-so-best" way to present the material.

For the second day in row (we saw this production the night after we saw Al Pacino as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice), we saw a superb actor superbly playing a superb role: Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell. Not only did Bedford forego winking at his cross-dressing role, he played it as true to the old lady as any actress could do and acted as if every one of Lady Bracknell’s utterances were inviolate truths. Upon learning that Jack Worthing is an orphan: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Upon learning that Algernon’s fictitious Mr. Bunburry succumbed to a disease his doctors deemed terminal: “He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians. I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action, and acted under proper medical advice.” Upon learning that Cecily is the ward of Worthing after learning that Worthing, as an infant, was found in a handbag in Victoria Station: “Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London? I merely desire information. Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus.” These and other such lines Bedford delivered with nary a sly or cynical tone but in all seriousness befitting the ever-right mind of Lady Bracknell. Thus delivered, each line generated huge laughs.

Bedford also directed this production, so one would think his approach to Lady Bracknell would have been matched by the rest of the cast. But only in David Furr as John Worthing, Charlotte Parry as Cecily, and Paxton Whitehead as the Rev. Canon Chasuble did we see the same total dedication to the character’s own intentness and, as a result, more satisfying humor (to hear Whitehead’s Chasuble describe giving the same sermon at a variety of at-odds occasions was to witness the true delusion of a clergyman). Algernon is written as a cynic, but Santino Fontana engaged in so much mugging, none of his lines seemed serious, which particularly debilitated the conversation between him and Cecily over their wholly imaginary on-again-off-again engagement. Sara Topham played Gwendolen’s conceitedness to the hilt, making her such a shrilly, spoiled, and domineering brat that Worthing’s affections seemed misplaced. How much funnier Topham’s performance might have been had she seen herself as a daughter in craft to Bedford rather than a daughter in fact to Lady Bracknell.

When it comes to presenting The Importance of Being Earnest, Bedford, in performance if not as director, revealed the importance of being earnest.

Eric Minton
February 21, 2011

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