Oscar Wilde’s 1895 The Importance of Being Earnest is the most brilliant comedy in the English language, and would be so even in any other one in which the titular pun (Earnest–Ernest) could not be reproduced. It makes Wilde’s close- at-heels tragedy even sadder: what treasures of future comedy were buried with him.
Frequently revived, the play is back in a Stratford Shakespeare Festival production picked up by the Roundabout Theatre Company, starring, for added piquancy, the classical actor Brian Bedford in grand Victorian drag as Lady Bracknell.
(L-R): Brian Bedford and Charlotte Parry. >>>
It is the story of two young upper-class bon vivants, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, and the women they love. Jack is courting the sassy Honorable Gwendolen Fairfax, daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell, aunt to Algernon. Jack is the guardian of 18-year-old Cecily Cardew, living in his country house, whom he wants to keep friend Algy strictly away from. As excuse for his trips to gallivant in London, Jack has invented a scapegrace brother Ernest. Algernon, in turn, for his country escapades, has invented a chronic invalid, Bunbury, whom he must visit; he calls this Bunburying, and considers Jack a fellow Bunburyist.
Algernon sneakily overhears Jack’s country address and presents himself as the wicked brother, with whom Cecily has been fascinated all along. Meanwhile Jack, having successfully wooed Gwendolen, has decided to kill off Ernest, and shows up home unexpectedly in deepest mourning for him. Calamity.
<<<(L-R): Sara Topham, David Furr, and Brian Bedford.
There are several comic strands, one of them involving Cecily’s prissy governess, Miss Prism, who is after the pedantic, scholarly Reverend Canon Chasuble. Off on a walk with him, she orders Cecily, “You will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational.” When Algernon wants a peak into Cecily’s diary, she refuses: “You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form, I hope you will order a copy.”
In quizzing Jack on his suitability for marrying her daughter, Lady Bracknell asks,” You have a town house I hope. A girl with a simple unspoiled nature like Gwendolen could hardly be expected to reside in the country.” When he adduces a town house in posh Belgrave Square, she asks for the number. It’s 149. Says she, “The unfashionable side. I thought there was something. However that could easily be altered. Jack: Do you mean the fashion or the side? Lady Bracknell (sternly): Both if necessary, I presume.” In a pointed confrontation, Cecily declares: “This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade, I call it a spade.” To which Gwendolen, “ I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been wildly different.”
This is a play where few lines cannot pass for epigrams, and even fewer are not hilarious. The chief comic device is the paradox, as when, in a dire moment, Algernon gorges on muffins. Upbraided by Jack, he counters, “When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in great trouble, as everyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink.” The beauty of Wilde’s paradoxes is that, however much they upend reality, they manage to make sense even standing on their head.
(L-R): David Furr and Santino Fontana.>>>
The present production gets a tremendous performance in drag from Brian Bedford’s Lady Bracknell, who looks, sounds, and behaves with perfect, if terrifying, femininity. As men age, they tend to look more like women, but here it is not a question of age, but of Bedford’s perfect pitch in self-transgendering. Santino Fontana is amusing, but a bit lacking in stature as Algernon; David Furr’s excellent Jack rather towers over him. Sara Topham is a delightfully hands-on Gwendolen; as Cecily, the otherwise able Charlotte Parry seems to have collected rather more than 18 summers. Dana Ivey is a convincing Miss Prism (described by Lady Bracknell as “a female of repellent aspect remotely connected with education”), Paul O’Brien is a delightfully cynical manservant to Algernon, and, as the Reverend Canon Chasuble, the redoubtable Paxton Whitehead makes you laugh even before he opens his mouth.
The veteran Canadian set and costume designer Desmond Heeley offers his considerable second best here, and Brian Bedford has, as usual, doubled as director to commanding effect. As the great critic Max Beerbohm remarked about the 1902 London revival, “over the whole house almost every line was sending ripples of laughter—cumulative ripples that became waves, and receded only for fear of drowning the next line.” Today’s American audiences are not quite that disciplined, but amid such glorious surplus, what are a few obliterated lines?
Photos by and courtesy of Joan Marcus.
Roundabout Theatre Company
227 West 42nd Street
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.