Reviewed by Carlos Stafford, The Model Critic
The supremely accomplished English actor, Brian Bedford, both directs and acts in this revival of Oscar Wilde’s, The Importance of Being Earnest, at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, in New York City. It comes here via Des McAnuff’s production in Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Please pass the scones and marmalade, we’re in for a wild ride.
At a time in Bedford’s career, where he easily could be playing Lear, Cardinals, and Popes, he instead tackles the imperious, supercilious Lady Bracknell, in drag. That the gifted Bedford plays this hefty role, against type and gender, would at first seem distracting. But truly, the moment he first arrives on stage, he creates an immediate suspension of disbelief. With only his face exposed, dressed in outlandishly beautiful period frocks in colorful silk, wigs, hats, jewels, and eyelashes, he delivers Lady Bracknell’s character with hilarious tartness and aplomb. Playing the character in a ” serious manner,” he confidently never telegraphs, or cajoles the humor, but rather lets the lines resonate on their own, “trippingly on the tongue”. Perfect!
As far as the play itself, it is easily one of the Greats in modern English drama. The famous Lady Bracknell interview with the suitor, John (Jack) Worthing, for Gwendolen Fairfax’s hand in marriage is brilliant:
Lady Bracknell: Do you smoke?
Jack: I must admit I smoke.
LB: I’m glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is.
LB: I have always had the opinion that a man who desires to be married should know everything or nothing. Which do you know?
Jack: I know nothing, Lady Bracknell
LB: I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit, touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.
LB: Are your parents living?
Jack: I have lost both my parents.
LB: Both? To loose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.
When Jack reveals that, as a child , he was found in a hang-bag in Victoria Station, Lady Bracknell delivers her famous “In a hang-bag?” response in a voice so low and aspirated with chagrin and disbelief, that the air fills the entire theater, reaching the usher at the rear in Row ZZZ.
As for the play itself, Wilde’s clever work cuts in many farcical directions; essentially, a humorous look at the desiccated, starchy manners of English high culture during the Victorian Age, where people don’t say exactly what they mean, have secret agendas, small larcenies, and hidden pasts. For love, both Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing assume the name of Earnest, while Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, will marry no one but a man called Earnest, creating hilarious entrapments.
But for all the comedic repartee, verbal badinage, and witty aphorisms, it amounts to nothing but a tempest in a teapot–earnestly pure entertainment, without any real moral or social significance. One leaves the theater refreshed and delighted. And bringing this all together, along with Bedford, was a fine assemblage of actors–notably Sarah Topham (Gwendolen) and David Furr (Jack Worthing), who were very good, and of course, the reliable Dana Ivey as Miss Prism and Paxton Whitehead as Chasuble.
I once saw this play done in Killarney, Ireland, in a small pub over pints of Guinness; perhaps twelve people drinking and watching. One of my partners, not a fan of drama of any sort, had a huge grim on his face throughout. Afterwards, he grabbed my arm and asked again the name of the play, if it wasn’t already obvious, then bought rounds for everyone.
It would be looked upon as carelessness if you missed this play.
Lane Paul O”Brian
Algernon Moncrieff Santino Fontana
John Worthing David Furr
Lady Bracknell Brian Bedford
Gwendolen Fairfax Sara Topham
Cecily Cardew Charlotte Parry
Miss Prism Dana Ivey
Rev. Chasuble Paxton Whitehead
Merriman Tim MacDonald
Servant Amanda Leigh Cobb