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The Importance of Being Earnest

Brian Bedford directs and stars in the Roundabout Theatre Company's nearly perfect revival of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy.

Sara Topham, David Furr, and Brian Bedford
in The Importance of Being Earnest
(© Joan Marcus)
Oscar Wilde's 1895 comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, now being revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, is a perfect piece of writing -- a verbal playground you wouldn't want to add a single word to or subtract a single word from. Nonetheless, that doesn't mean it can't be compromised by a less-than-perfect production. Luckily, this new Broadway mounting, directed by and starring Brian Bedford, is as nearly perfect as it gets.

Wilde's three-act play, which unfolds on Desmond Heeley's beautifully appointed gauzy sets, focuses on John Worthing (David Furr), who has his reasons for calling himself Ernest to his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Santino Fontana) and, more importantly, to the object of his affection, Gwendolen Fairfax (Sara Topham). What John, a foundling raised by a rich man, doesn't have is a pedigree of his own to impress Gwendolen's aunt, Lady Bracknell (Bedford), who sternly forbids their alliance.

What Ernest/John does have -- but keeps under wraps -- is an 18-year-old ward, Cecily Cardew (Charlotte Parry), who lives at his country estate. Algernon, eager to learn more about her, not only contrives to visit her in the country, but instantly becomes enamored of her. This causes all sorts of complications when John and Gwendolen arrive, and the men's identities become a matter of comic confusion. Naturally, Wilde works it all out with diabolical cleverness, after disapproving Lady Bracknell descends and both Cecily's tutor, Miss Prism (Dana Ivey), and local reverend Chasuble (Paxton Whitehead) contribute their two pence.

Wilde got his copious laughs by putting the sort of bon mots in his characters' mouths that even crackerjack conversationalists infrequently come up with in real life, and the non-stop quips demand actors who can handle the lines as if throwing confetti in the air. By cross-dressing as Lady Bracknell -- a role many actors have filled to their delight -- Bedford guarantees that the haughty dame's utterances will land every time. Moreover, the entire act-one grilling to which Lady Bracknell submits the importuning Ernest is played by Bedford and Furr with hilarious finesse.

So is the earlier scene between Ernest and Algernon, where Furr and Fontana establish their characters' committed insipidity. All four of the younger cast members, swanning about in Heeley's finery, capture Wilde's essence with the kind of efforts that look absolutely effortless. As might be expected, Ivey and Whitehead sail through the proceedings on the kind of technique they could bottle and sell at considerable prices. As Algernon's man, Lane, Paul O'Brien gets laughs by mere eye rolls, and as Cecily's attendant, Merriman, Tim McDonald acquits himself honorably.

At one gossamer moment in Wilde's cat's-cradle of silliness, Gwendolen expresses her philosophy of life by saying, "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing." Under Bedford's assured guidance, style is so vital in this Earnest that it all but sings.

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