The Importance of Being Earnest
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 19, 2011
I've said this before, and it's still true: Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest may be the very funniest play ever. It's certainly among the sturdiest comedies of all time, as much for its on-target skewering of a variety of archetypal personalities as for as its ingeniously silly plot and its seemingly bottomless supply of hilarious and witty bon mots. The current Broadway revival, helmed by Brian Bedford, gives the play the sitcom treatment, adding the stage equivalents of boldface and italics to a text that absolutely doesn't require them, presumably to amp up the laugh quotient. Neither the best nor worst production of Earnest that I've seen, it nevertheless provides a fine couple hours' of entertainment—because with this script it's probably impossible to do otherwise.
Earnest tells the story of two friends living the high life in fashionable late Victorian England. Jack Worthing lives on a country estate with his ward, Cecily Cardew; he pretends to have a naughty younger brother named Ernest in London, which makes it easy for him to slip away for visits to the city (in the guise of this fictitious fellow "Ernest") whenever he wants to. As Ernest, he has befriended Algernon Moncrieff, who, it turns out, has devised a similar scheme of his own: he has a fake friend named "Bunbury" who lives in the country, and Algy goes to visit his imaginary pal, who is a terrible invalid, whenever he wants to get out of town. Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, Algy's cousin, but their marriage plans face a formidable obstacle in the person of Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell: when Jack reveals that he was in fact a foundling (left in a handbag in a cloak room at Victoria Station), the society-conscious Lady Bracknell refuses permission for the match. Complications ensue, and there's also a slight subplot involving Cecily's governess, Miss Prism, and the local minister, Dr. Chasuble. All works out well in the end, of course.
The story is delightful, and the dialogue priceless. Wilde captures here the shallow foolishness of giddy lovers, snobs, social climbers; the overprivileged, the overeducated, and the overindulgent.
Bedford's production misses the gossamer frothiness that I've seen in the best Earnests. Instead, the comedy is constantly punched up, even though it never needs this additional "help." For example, take the very first moments of the show: Algy's valet, Lane, is alone on stage, while we hear from offstage the sounds of his employer playing piano (as Algy himself describes it, he plays inaccurately but with great expression). Do we really need to see Lane visibly wince at some bad notes and then mouth, eyes rolled upward, "Why?" to the heavens? This kind of thing pops up throughout this revival. It's unnecessary, and off-putting.
Bedford himself is among the biggest offenders. He plays Lady Bracknell, and his delivery of some of her most famous lines has all the subtlety of a marching brass band. His casting is also somewhat puzzling: why is a man playing this role, I kept wondering, especially when there's a woman in the company who could almost certainly do it better? I'm referring to Dana Ivey, who here plays second fiddle as Miss Prism; she gives a fine performance but there's too little for her to do. Ivey's scenes with Paxton Whitehead, as Chasuble, are the best in the production. Whitehead NEVER overplays, and he earns the biggest laughs (in one of the least overtly funny roles) as a result.
Santino Fontana (Algernon), David Furr (Jack), Sara Topham (Gwendolen), and Charlotte Parry (Cicely) all look their parts, but only Parry seems fully to inhabit hers; the others do much more declaiming and posturing than behaving. Furr's Jack does rise to the occasion in the final act; but he seems a lot older than 29 (and than Fontana's Algy), which is distracting.
Desmond Heeley's set is serviceable but does not harken back to the days of Broadway opulence that I was hoping for. His costume designs are lovely, though; and the other production elements are certainly fine.