January 26, 2011

"The Importance of Being Earnest" Reminds Me of the True Legacy of Oscar Wilde

Thanks to books (fictional homages by Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, and George Bernard Shaw), movies (like the 1997 Stephen Fry biopic “Wilde,” in which Jude Law played his lover) and, of course, plays (most notably Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency and David Hare’s The Judas Kiss) I’m far more familiar with Oscar Wilde’s persona than I am with his writing.  And over the years, I’ve come to think of Wilde as the prototype for so much of what we now consider to be a gay sensibility: the droll demeanor, the verbal wit, the simultaneous fascination withand condescension towards—high society.

All of these qualities are on vivid display in Wilde's masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. And they are being shown off to enjoyable effect in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s much-acclaimed revival of that play, which just extended its run at the American Airlines Theatre through July 3.

The Importance of Being Earnest is, of course, the one Wilde work that everyone (including me) knows because it used to be such a staple of the high school play and community theater canon. It was just as popular when it opened in London in 1895. Wilde had just turned 40 and was at the height of his powers and success.

But the play closed after just 86 performances, unable to withstand the scandal when the Marquess of Queensbury publicly accused the writer of being a sodomite (then a crime in England) and of seducing his son Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde foolishly sued for libel and, after several trials, was eventually sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison. He died three years after his release in impoverished exile in Paris. 

The Importance of Being Earnest, however, has lived on with eight Broadway revivals and three major movie versions, the most recent with Rupert Everett and Colin Firth as the Victorian dandies Algernon and Jack, who, for various reasons, pretend that their name is Ernest and then find themselves in love with women who insist they can only marry a man who has that name. 

But the most beloved character in the play has always been Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, a paragon of aristocratic virtue and one-liner putdowns. It’s a delicious part and over the years it’s been played by such theatrical grand dames as Margaret Rutherford, Edith Evans, Nancy Marchand, Lynn Redgrave, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, who currently can be seen doing a riff on Lady B in the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” 

Yet it’s hard to believe the role could ever have been done better than the tour de force performance that Brian Bedford is now giving.  It’s the chief reason to see the show.  It’s also a master class in comic acting. What makes Bedford’s performance so remarkable is that he never succumbs to camp or winking at the audience. Like any great actor, he simply plays the part and makes his character as believable as his superb talent allows. (Click here to read a terrific profile of him in the New York Times.)

Bedford also directs the show and he has surrounded himself with a game cast, including the reliable old hands Dana Ivey as Miss Prism, a governess to one of the love interests, and Paxton Whitehead as the clueless clergyman Rev. Canon Chasuble, characters so revered that even Spell Check recognizes them.  

 Also good is Santino Fontana, who shows here that he can be just as convincing as a fop as he was as the angry older brother in Billy Elliot and the menchy one in the recent revival of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs.  And they’re all wittily dressed by Desmond Heeley, who did the eye-pleasing costumes and sets.

Still, I have to confess that The Importance of Being Earnest struck me as dated (albeit undeniably cleverly crafted) and it flagged for me when Bedford’s Lady Bracknell was off stage.  During those moments, I found myself wondering what Wilde might have done if his career and his life hadn’t been cut short by the scandal, how pleased he’d be that the love that dare not speak its name in his time is increasingly being accepted in ours, and how gratified it would make him to see playwrights like Douglas Carter Beane carrying on in the tradition he set.

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