by Oscar Wilde
Directed by and Starring Brian Bedford
With Dana Ivey and Paxton Whitehead
A Production of the Roundabout Theatre Company
at the American Airlines Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

Well, this, this, this is the damn way to do it, boys and girls, this is how you play comedy for real stakes, this is how you balance the subtle lob with grand gesture, this is how you make costumes work for you. When I heard that Brian Bedford would both be directing Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and starring in it as the imperious Lady Bracknell (which is often served up as a drag role for old masters these days), I knew it would be an object lesson. A textbook how-to and so much more. And oh was I ever not wrong.

               Bedford is a curiosity, as stars go: born in England, emigrated to Canada, known primarily for roles in the classics (and for directing them), not much screen work in proportion to his stage work and nothing much in the way of a public persona or even just maintaining a presence. Yet when his name is invoked, it is not without some reverence. And with good reason: when he does show up, he’s ‘da man. And in this case he’s also The Grande Dame.

               His version of Earnest favors scenery and costumes that are highly stylized; the scenery bearing the earmarks of fussy, intricate locale sketches, the costumes less fussy, favoring bright primary colors and catchy designs—all a bit wacky. Into this he has poured a delightfully cast ensemble who both honor the heightened reality of the design with a certain vivid intensity—yet never push the comedy as if they’re playing for laughs. Urgent sincerity over matters trivial, the classic concept of “playing for real stakes” rules the day here, making this perhaps the funniest Earnest within memory. Easier described than accomplished of course, because you not only need the right type of actor in each role, you need those who have an impeccable sense of rhythm, of easy delivery, of making silence work as well as words. When Santino Fontana, as Algernon, can enter a scene under false pretences meet David Furr’s expression of shocked recognition with a tiny moue as if to say, “Don’t give away the game” and get an explosive laugh…when Bedford’s Bracknell receives information that requires her to adapt a previously inflexible position, and considers her position with a shift of eyeballs, as if to say, “H’m, I wasn’t expecting that one” and the laugh is as big…when Bedford makes his Act Three entrance descending steps in a bright red wide gown, with all the shameless entitlement of Dolly Levi…well, those are the moments, the kinds of moments, that only happen when  you have that rare, alchemical fusion of genius, craft and inspiration. It’s a wonder to behold, and turns a play that can be an old (if witty) chestnut you’ve seen a dozen times into a sparkling confection you’ve never quite tasted before.

               This is remarkable stuff. This is how classics are rendered worth reviving. This is just the damn way you do it, that’s all.

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