Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Theater Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

As soon as we catch sight of the cunning, snobbishly droll Lady Bracknell (the incomparable Brian Bedford in drag) and hear her proclaim that “to lose one parent ... may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness,” it seems clear that the sparkling revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at New York’s American Airlines Theatre will capture and maintain the playwright’s consistent, quick-witted tone. It is also helpful that Bedford, the play’s key figure who also flawlessly directed the production, has surrounded himself with a group of fine, talented actors for support. 

Wilde’s play, a decoratively textured, inventive comic fable that engages the imagination and appears not to loosen its grip, even after the final curtain, is arguably one of the greatest British comedies of all time. There is no doubt that the work has had a profound influence on prose stylists from Noel Coward in England to David Mamet on Broadway. It is also gratifying to see (at a time when rock musicals are prevalent) that a superb comedy of manners, which was first produced in 1895, is currently and deservedly attracting large audiences at a Times Square theatre.

The play’s plot revolves around a pair of socially elite young men, Algernon Moncrieff (Santino Fontana) and John Worthing (David Furr), who fabricate a couple of imaginary characters in dire need of their help so that the two codgers are able to run away from their social obligations with impunity.  John has invented an immoral, needy brother; Algernon fictionalizes a very ill friend. However, after playing this deceitful game for some time, the two men fall in love with women who refuse to wed anyone whose name is not Earnest.

Algie chooses the chaste Cecily (Charlotte Parry) and Jack has his eye on the carefree Gwendolen (Sara Topham).  However, Gwendolen just happens to be the daughter of the intolerable, snobbishly wacky Lady Bracknell.  While interrogating the prospective suitor, the situation is complicated when Jack, an orphan, confesses that he never knew his parents, that he was, in fact, discovered in a handbag after having been abandoned as an infant in Victoria Station.  “Found? ... A handbag?” the usually imperturbable Lady Bracknell indignantly, scornfully and hilariously screams.  The powerhouse delivery of that response is alone worth the price of admission.  It does not matter that the complications here are wholly improbable. We don’t take any of this business seriously, but it’s important that the actors do.

A secondary plot revolves around Miss Prism (Dana Ivey), who is sweet and properly jittery as Cecily’s governess and teacher.  She and a thick-witted vicar, the Reverend Canon Chasuble (Paxton Whitehead), are indeed a comic pair whose wry observations also help to enliven the play. Although Prism is moralistic when she is in charge of her student, we detect a touch of roguery when she interacts with the Reverend. “You are too much alone, dear Dr. Chasuble.  You should get married,” she advises.

Just about everything seems right in this production. In addition to Wilde’s lively plot, his brilliant, sharp dialogue and the splendid portrayals by a superb cast, there is more to commend. The visually alluring sets and lavish costumes (created by Desmond Heeley) are all in period style and provide the suitably elegant atmosphere.  And Duane Schuler’s sharp lighting design adds even more luster to an already luminous evening at the theatre.

The production of “Earnest” was scheduled to close after the performance of March 6. However, because of wide critical acclaim, the run of the play has been extended until July 3.