Throughout college, the majority of my coursework was in English Literature, and my Master’s Degree is in Theatre History and Criticism, so, naturally, I’ve had a great deal of exposure to Oscar Wilde (no pun intended, though I’m sure he’d appreciate the double entendre), and to The Importance of Being Earnest, in particular. Up until last night, however, I had never seen the play performed live on stage, and if you are in a similar boat, Roundabout Theatre Company’s glowing new Broadway production is the perfect opportunity to do so. The thing about Oscar Wilde is that his dialogue is so divinely witty that, even just reading it on the page now, approximately 116 years after it was first produced, it still sparkles. When those words are performed by a brilliant cast of actors, then, they can be revelatory. One might think that a play written in the 1800s might not be funny today in anything more than an academic way, but as this production proves, when done right, this old play can be gutbustingly hilarious.
One of the keys to this particular production’s success is that director Brian Bedford makes no attempt to modernize the work. Desmond Heeley’s truly gorgeous costumes and sets are all period-appropriate, and even the design of the curtain and the orchestral score playing when one enters the theatre are meant to return us to 1800s England. It is also presented in its original three acts, with two intermissions, which in some ways makes it truly feel like we’ve stepped into an earlier era. But most importantly of all, Bedford ensures that his cast doesn’t perform the play as a stuffy, dusty old Masterpiece Theatre piece. Instead, they bring it to potent life with freewheeling abandon. In other words, we’re seeing it as it was meant to be seen. The energy is remarkable, the comedy bouncing between the actors as if the script were specifically written for this particular cast to perform, and the pacing never flags.
A great deal of this crackling electricity can be attributed to the centerpiece of the production–Bedford’s simply devastating performance as the monstrous, magnanimous Lady Bracknell. Because it had always seemed in some ways that Wilde had written himself into the play under the guise of Lady Bracknell, as well as with Algernon–both characters share his precise, sharp, biting wit, and his love for perfectly tuned nonsense that, as with Lewis Carroll, actually does make perfect sense if you look at it the right way, holding the looking-glass up to nature and society, as it were–it just seems the next logical step to turn this subtext into text by literally placing a man in the role. Bedford is simply ingenious, completely and utterly owning the stage with his every exhalation of breath, and making it seem the easiest thing in the world. His Lady Bracknell is larger than life–drag of epic proportions. As with the best drag, we can tell he isn’t a woman, and he doesn’t try to hide it, and yet we as audience members willfully disregard it at the same time, and that dissonance between what we know and what we choose to ignore is the spark that ignites the immense comedy of this production. His is one of the great live performances I’ve seen.
At the same time, the grandeur of his performance never overshadows or overwhelms the piece, which might be the most remarkable thing about it. All of the other actors are more than up to the challenge of sharing the stage with Bedford–his energy seems to ripple outwards, suffusing and elevating everyone else’s performances, even when he is off-stage. Santino Fontana is a devilishly hilarious and charming Algernon, David Furr a superbly put-upon Jack, Jayne Houdyshell an expertly pompous and slightly dotty Miss Prism, and in the two ingenue roles, Jessie Austrian and Charlotte Parry are both absolutely brilliant as Gwendolen and Cecily, respectively–each of the two a splendid comedic creation in her own right, Austrian with her bubbly effervescence, and Parry with her sweet-but-ever-so-slightly-addlebrained manner that (as a friend of mine pointed out) calls to mind Bubble from Absolutely Fabulous, and together, their chemistry is enormous, both at those points in the play were they love each other and those where they loathe each other.
And if there is anyone reading this who doesn’t know the play at all, now is the time to acquaint yourself. As a work, its structure is as close to perfection as humanly possible. It was originally intended to be a parody of the “well-made play,” a French genre of drama, which will have little bearing on your enjoyment of it today. What it boils down to is that basically every single element that Wilde introduces throughout Earnest, mostly in the form of running jokes, comes to pay off by the end in truly stunning ways. Things that initially seem to be one-off gags eventually reveal themselves to be the keys to unlocking the mysteries-that-you-may-not-have-even-realized-were-mysteries upon which the play is built. No fan of the play has ever looked at a handbag the same way again. A great deal of the humor comes from mistaken identity of the deliberate and accidental varieties, and fans of Steven Moffat’s Coupling will find in Earnest the roots of many of the misunderstandings that arose on that show due to various people interpreting the exact same sentence in different ways, due to their own unique contexts.
If you are new to Wilde, this production provides a flawless introduction, bringing his words to glorious life, as they were meant to be. If you already know him and this perennial work, it is a wonderful reaffirmation as to the man’s genius. I’ve read The Importance of Being Earnest numerous times and have even seen a screen version or two, but no previous contact with it prepared me for the thrill of this production, which makes lines I’ve read or heard countless times before, seem shiny and new again.
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