HD Live Review: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST: LIVE IN HD (“live” video presentation of the Broadway production)

by Harvey Perr on June 9, 2011

in Theater-New York,Uncategorized

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Lady Bracknell (arguably the greatest creation of Oscar Wilde’s surpassingly fertile comic imagination) is the aristocratic and imperious dowager who could make single words like “Found!” and simple questions like “In a handbag?” sound like the essence of wit – received its juiciest interpreter in Dame Edith Evans in a performance that will never be forgotten by anyone who ever saw her play the part;  and the memory of both her astonishment and her matter-of-factness left such an indelible impression that no other actor attempting the role is likely to ever erase that memory. Now, I don’t mean to slight the grand Dame Edith in any way, but Brian Bedford, one of the world’s greatest living classical actors, is doing just that in the newest revival of Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest.  It is a performance that will be talked about whenever people gather to discuss the most inspired examples of the art of acting.

Bedford is not merely duplicating the plumminess of Lady Bracknell’s hauteur with hilarious results; he is giving us a marvelously detailed portrait of a woman…and an entire era…in which such women inflicted the cloistered world in which they thrived with the sort of high-minded nonsense that pretty much compared the eating of cucumber sandwiches with the major global crises of her age. There is profound parody here, profound because it is so character-driven. In Bedford, we see that, as bruising as Bracknell’s snobbery can be, she is also bruised by her own snobbishness.  One also sees, in the very way her eyes manage to shift uneasily as she comes up with an idea that seems to surprise her even more than it surprises those she is addressing, that there is a noble and unspoken pain residing within the fancy folds of her elaborate and overstuffed gowns. It is a piece of acting that is  perfectly considered and, at the same time, genuinely liberating. Even those familiar with the play – who sit there in expectation of what witty line comes next – will be amazed to find that it all seems to be coming out of her mouth and her body as spontaneously as if Bedford is making it all up as he goes along, and not merely uttering some of the most famous epithets in the history of dramatic literature. There is, in short, neither a single false moment here nor a single wasted one.  And the wisdom that walks hand in hand with the supreme silliness comes through with remarkable lucidity. And there is not a trace of camp in any of this. To say that one laughs until one cries is no understatement.

The beauty of the production is that is has been directed by Bedford with as much style and affection as he has invested in his portrayal of Lady Bracknell. Although Bedford is its magnificent centerpiece, the ensemble work is superb. Do I need to burden you with the plot?  I hope not. But it is fair to say a few things: that the complications that ensue in this comedy of manners and mixed identities are all neatly handled; that it spoofs without condescension the foibles of not only the rich but of the church and of the educated class; that, in its splendid cast, the easy professionalism of Paxton Whitehead as the Reverend Canon Casuble and Dana Ivey as Miss Prism is pure delight; that Sara Topham as Lady Bracknell’s daughter, the Honorable Gwendolen Fairfax, shows every sign of one day becoming a version of  her mother; that David Furr’s Jack Worthing and Charlotte Parry as his innocent but sly ward, Cecily Cardew, make music of language; that Paul O’Brien’s manservant Lane is deftly dry;  and that Santino Fontana is especially refreshing as Algernon Montcrieff, as unabashed a dandy as one can imagine, and even though he starts off on such a high note that one is a bit frightened that he will have nowhere to go from that place, he ultimately sees that his singular take on the character pays off in exceptionally funny ways (he was so brilliant in the recent Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and so different here that I couldn’t help but be impressed by the versatility of this promising young actor).

And, of course, the impeccably tasteful set designs – not to mention the opulent costumes – of Desmond Heeley are masterful; they create the world of the play as lovingly and as drolly as an astute eye possibly could. We are transported back not only to the period of the play but to the theater of its time. And yet there is a modern sensibility at play here too, because Bedford and his company take Wilde at his word when he says that “the heart has its wisdom as well as the head.”

Roundabout Theatre Company, L.A. Theatre Works, and BY Experience, who have presented the Roundabout Theatre Company production (live in HD, thereby preserving what is such a glorious representation of Broadway at its scintillating best),  are to be congratulated for bringing it to us. May this be the start of a fine new tradition.

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

The Importance of Being Earnest
now touring the world throughout June in select movie theaters
for screening schedule, visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/broadway/theimportanceofbeingearnest/hd/venues.htm

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