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A CurtainUp Review
The Importance of Being Earnest
By Elyse Sommer
All the silly plot machinations notwithstanding, Wilde's final play still delivers on his purpose of satirizing the shallowness of Victorian society via an ingeniously constructed farcical jigsaw puzzle: Deliberately assumed false personas by two pleasure loving bachelors. . . haphazardly lost and comically regained identities. . . romantic alliances based on requirements that bear out one of the play's countless bon mots — "We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces." (Readers unfamiliar with the plot will find a slightly more detailed synopsis at the end of this review).
But there's nothing trivial about The Importance of Being Earnest's enduring success. It's been revived again and again, filmed, and even musicalized (Ernest In Love). In its thirteen years on line, Curtainup has reviewed nine productions, not counting the musical. The brilliant wordplay throughout Wilde's take on the light-hearted, intentional silliness of Restoration comedy has become so familiar that, like Shakespeare's most popular plays, seeing it all once again is less a surprise than a reunion with an old friend. Many of the quips have been so widely quoted that they'll ring a bell even for those seeing the play for the first time.
Enjoyable as it always is to hear those Wildean lines spoken and much as one may admire the way Wilde has managed to give a serious underpinning of social and sexual concerns to the trivial surface, yet another revival does beg this question: Could it cause a been-there-done-that resistance to investing time and discretionary dollars in another visit with these characters? The answer is yes and no.
Even Wilde enthusiasts (and I'm definitely one of them) may find themselves wishing they couldn't predict how the pieces of the comic jigsaw fall into place and recognize the delicious lines. But the chances of a "no, not again" reaction to another revival disappear as fast as the muffins and cucumber sandwiches Algernon Moncrieff (Santino Fontana) and John Worthing (David Furr) love — that's provided the actors recreating the society whose trivial pursuits and values the playwright satirizes bring enough comic flair to their roles to make one fall in love with this comedy's clever construction and savor every memorably funny line as if hearing it for the first time.
Fortunately the Roundabout's revival has flair to spare. It also has the added novelty of having director and actor Brian Bedford don a wig, elegant hat and skirt to play Wilde's marvelous monster character, Lady Bracknell.
Some Wilde aficionados may remember a couple of previous productions with the dragon lady in drag — one highly praised in 1975 with the late actor William Hutt, and a less successful foray into gender bending by the Aquila Theater company in 2003. This is my first male Lady Bracknell and Bedford is nothing short of terrific. He may be a tad old to be the mother of a very young marriageable daughter, but he's such a towering gorgon that even if he were forty -six instead of seventy six his tightly corseted grandeur and imperial bearing would make it hard to envision this Lady Bracknell ever removing her white gloves and hat long enough to conceive a child. Bedford's facial expressions are so priceless that he'd be fun to watch even if this was a non-speaking role.
But, of course Wilde wrote some of his most memorable and nuanced lines for Lady Bracknell and Bedford brings his considerable classical and comic gifts to deliver them in always imperious and varied tones. He-She tells Algernon "Never speak disrespectfully of society. . . Only people who can't get into it do that." The illnesses of Bunbury, the friend Algernon invented as a means of getting away for fun sprees, is dismissed with "Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others."
Lady Bracknell's most famous pronouncements are issued during the scene that best illustrates Wilde's satiric view of the marriage market. That's when she ticks off the assets of John Worthing, intent on marrying her daughter Gwendolen (Sara Topham). The interrogation over with John's origins as a foundling left in a handbag at Victoria station revealed, Bedford lands his exit line with enough of a comic bang to have you laughing no matter how often you've heard it. ("You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter —- a girl brought up with the utmost care — to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel"). The standout song of the previously mentioned musical adaptation was "A Handbag is Not a Proper Mother." Lady Bracknell's turnaround vis-a-vis her nephew Algernon's love for John's ward Cecily Cardew (Charlotte Parry) is equally amusing and incisive.
Wearing his director's hat, Mr. Bedford's staging takes a little while to get its bearings and establish the right mix of lightness edged with bite. However, he has surrounded himself with a cast that also gets into the spirit of the assumed and mistaken identities. David Furr and Santino Fontano expertly play off each other. They don't look a bit alike their characters are enough alike to be brothers, as evidenced by their apetite for life generally and cucumber sandwiches in particular. Furr is particularly funny when he arrives home in deep mourning for the profligate brother he's just killed off (or so he thinks). As for their lady loves, Sara Topham's strictly raised but not too over-educated Gwendolen gives every indication of living up to Algernon's by now almost cliche comment that "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." Charlotte Parry's younger but also properly raised Cecily, also shows a strong woman poised to emerge from beneath the innocent country mouse facade.
With Dana Ivey as Cecily's governess Miss Prism and Paxton Whitehead as the Reverand Chasuble, you have two minor characters well known enough to Roundabout's seasoned audiences to applaud their initial entrances. Their characters figure importantly as counter points to the Victorian upper crust they serve and to help unravel the mistaken identities and round out the socially acceptable heterosexual happy ending.
Naturally, no period British comedy like this would dare to raise the curtain if the cast didn't include a butler-- in this case two butlers, Paul O'Brien as Algy's Lane and Tim MacDonald as John's Merriman. And no Roundabout revival would overlook the pleasures of a physically sumptuous production. The curtain rises of Desmund Heeley's three sets, the first of which is the most lavishly detailed. Those three sets require two intermissions, unlike the one-intermission, two-set adjustments by more budget-constrained directors and producers). Heeley, who himself hand painted the majestic curtain with its "VR" for Victoria Regina emblem outdoes himself with the costumes he also designed. His outfits for the women, especially a breathtakingly gorgeous flocked white gown for Gwendolen, Miss Prism's amusing schoolmarmish attire and Lady Bracknell's two eyepopping outfits. He hasn't shortchanged the men either, with Algy a particularly winning fashion plate.
In the event that you've never seen or read The importance of Being Earnest, here's a synopsis in an over-the-limit tweet: The plot trigger is the courtship of John Worthing of his friend Algernon Moncrieff's cousin and daughter of a formidable mother, Lady Bracknell. In order to enjoy their bachelor lives both men have invented fictitious characters as alibis for the frequent absence from their homes —- from the country in John's case, and town in Algy's. John introduced himself to Gwendolen Fairfax as Ernest, not telling her that this is really his fictious bad-boy brother. Algy makes an uninvited visit to John's home hoping to meet his ward Cecily, also pretending to be Ernest. The ladies are more than happy with their suitors since both are fixated on the appeal of men named Ernest. The men hasten to oblige them by arranging to be christened . To ramp up the complications: John was a foundling, left in a handbag at Victoria Station and is thus unable to satisfy Cecily's mother's requirements for a suitable husband. However, all ends well with Miss Prism, Cecily's governess, being the key to John's true parentage and a triple happy finale.