Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest

Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell

The currently celebrated Roundabout Theatre Company production of The Importance of Being Earnest directed by and starring Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell, which will shortly come to a close, was the first Broadway production of the Oscar Wilde chestnut since 1977 at Circle in the Square. Then it was Elizabeth Wilson as Lady Bracknell, Mary Louise Wilson as Miss Prism, John Glover as Algernon and James Valentine as John. That production was something of an event as the play hadn’t been seen on Broadway since 1947 with John Gielgud as John––a production that ended a long era of regular revivals. There were seven of them between the US debut in 1895 at the Empire Theater and 1947. Two of the more notable actors playing John were Henry Miller in 1902 (more famous now as the former name of the Stephen Sondheim Theater) and Clifton Webb in 1939. The many others filling out those long ago casts are names that have faded away, but for those who caught the current production it will be difficult to ever forget Brian Bedford’s transformation into Lady Bracknell. This casting was, in a way, a kind of stunt, but it was not treated as camp (even if this is Oscar Wilde). Mr. Bedford’s performance was pure character acting and utterly believable. If you didn’t know Lady Bracknell was being played by a man you would swear the person was a woman. Even when knowing the facts, the character was instantly believable from the moment Lady Bracknell made her entrance.

The top rate cast included David Furr as John, Jayne Houdyshell as Miss Prisim, Jessie Austrian as Gwendolen, Charlotte Parry as Cecily and Santino Fontana as Algernon. However, on the night I caught the show it was old friend Richard Gallagher going on for Algernon. He has been covering both John and Algernon and even has had to go on for both characters in the same week. When I mentioned to my house manager friends Steve Ryan and Zipporah Agusvivas that I was there especially to see Richard go on as Algernon they lit up and expressed how impressed they had been to watch him through the run jumping back and forth between the two characters. This was Richard’s Broadway debut and although he was an understudy, he had plenty of opportunity to trod the boards as both leading male characters. His friends, who sat in the audience in happy support, had known his past decade in New York forging a career playing odd out of town dates, Fringe theater productions, readings and a lot of office temp work inbetween it all, so it was a great joy to see him finally on a Broadway stage. In fact, during the run of “Earnest,” Richard kept going in to his long term temp job to insure that it would still be there for him when the show closed. He knows as well as anyone that there may not be a next Broadway show and then again the world can turn on a dime.

Adding to the whimsy of the delightful production was Desmond Heeley’s Victorian pop-up book sets and colorful detailed costumes. The flat painted look of the 19th Century was augmented with aspects of dimension and all three settings were full of interesting detail, yet subdued in a pallet that allowed the more vibrant costumes to pop and visually fuel the characters with an energy the cast more than matched in person. This production will come to a close on June 26th, but it was filmed and shown in movie theaters this past month, so here’s hoping a DVD release or TV showing is in the future. Although the play is produced continuously all over the world, it is rare on Broadway and you would be hard-pressed to see it done so beautifully all the way around.

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