Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

earnest_176_feb11From left, Santino Fontana, Charlotte Parry, Sara Topham, David Furr. (Photo submitted)

NEW YORK – Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, "The Importance of Being Earnest," the most trivial and elegant of all farce comedies, is currently getting a brilliantly polished revival at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre on West 42nd Street.

Directed by and starring Brian Bedford, as Wilde’s Victorian grand dame, Augusta Lady Bracknell, this production, which originated at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2009 and runs through March 6, has a mixed cast of American, English and Canadian actors. As a troupe, they make this "Earnest" not only enjoyable, but also memorable.

Wilde’s "Earnest," which was first presented in London in 1895, is not performed often because of the specific acting style it demands. All of its players must be seasoned talents who have been trained, tested and expert in the stage decorum and diction of comedy of manners.

Wilde’s play blends wit and humor elegantly; at one moment, the play seems like a drawing room comedy, and the next, it’s the broadest of farces. But, "Earnest" must be as precisely and delicately staged as if it were a classical ballet. If it isn’t, this period comedy might come off as a silly museum artifact.

Fortunately, everything that Wilde and his audiences considered amusing is still funny, and the play has lost neither its humor nor grace as directed and acted by Mr. Bedford and his cohorts. It’s as if he and his cast have scrutinized Wilde’s celebrated characters and all of the play’s famous lines to find new meanings and lively readings for 21st-century audiences.

From the play’s first scene, when John "Jack" Worthing (David Furr) arrives at his friend Algernon Moncrieff’s (Santino Fontana) London flat on Half-Moon Street for tea, Wilde sets the fast-paced mechanics of the farce in motion and never lets it flag until he brings down the curtain a couple of hours later with the final line that gives the play its name.

Wilde has concocted the tritest of plots for this social satire send-up of his time, which he appropriately subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People." Jack Worthing has invented a brother named "Earnest" as an excuse for traveling to London, while his chum Algernon has dreamed up an invalid, Bunbury, as a ruse for taking trips to the country. Jack, it turns out, is engaged to be married to Gwendolen Fairfax (Sara Topham), daughter of Lady Bracknell. He also serves as guardian of Cecily Cardew (Charlotte Parry), who is being wooed by Algernon, Lady Bracknell’s nephew.

What is remarkable is there is not a cliché in the play; there are no false laughs. The great, familiar lines are presented intact, and the great scenes – most of which feature Mr. Bedford’s Lady Bracknell – are acted with freshness.

Mr. Bedford, a great British-born actor, who at 75 is still in top form, leads the frolic in a performance that is carefully and shrewdly conceived and worked out in great detail.

Lady Bracknell is the proper rich dowager of the day, who thrives on wiles and paradox. Mr. Bedford gets the humor of her out of every line; though he does not camp it up in the least, he does use every trick in the comic acting book. His Lady Bracknell is less of a lethal Victorian battleaxe and more of a formidable woman on a mission: finding the right husband for her daughter.

The supporting cast is equally admirable: Dana Ivey gives an amusing performance as the governess/teacher Miss Prism, and Paxton Whitehead is broad and funny as Rev. Canon Chasuble. Mr. Fontana and Mr. Furr stir up a lot of tomfoolery as Algernon and Jack, and as the objects of their pursuit, Ms. Parry and Ms. Topham are just about perfect.

The play has lovely costumes and beautiful settings, both by Desmond Heeley, which add distinction to a superlative production of Wilde’s classic play.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.