If The Importance of Being Earnest isn’t the funniest play in the English language since Shakespeare, it’s in the top three. (Add Noises Off and you pick one.) Oscar Wilde’s delicious ‘comedy of manners’ is a concoction of mistaken identity, frustrated romance, a foundling in a handbag and the relative appeal of cucumber sandwiches vs. bread and butter. Those topics and more (late-in-life christening, for one) are cooked up into a perfect farce with a dash of melodrama.
Earnest stands up to repeated viewings. As with much of Shakespeare, re-visits often reveal new treasures, and even mediocre productions entertain. Written in 1895, the play is at once of its time and timeless.
Jack wishes to marry Gwendolyn, while Algernon poses as Jack’s brother to woo Cecily, Jack’s ward. Both romances are thwarted by Gwen’s mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, Wilde’s most memorable creation. The couples end up together, of course, but to report how would spoil the fun. Suffice to say that the given name “Earnest” factors in and that supremely witty commentary on British society paves the way to an absurdly amusing conclusion. The “Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” the play’s subtitle, is pure delight.
Among the many productions I’ve seen, the Earnest now on Broadway is, hands down, the best. Originally staged at the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival in 2009, the production is directed by and stars Brian Bedford…as Lady Bracknell. It is a sometime tradition for a man to play the role, and Bedford pulls off the near-impossible. Not only is his long-established, classic-comedy brilliance on display, his gender disappears into the imperious character. He does as much with a raised eyebrow as he does with such as Lady Bracknell’s comment that women who flirt with their own husbands are “washing their clean linen in public.”
In a recent play about Oscar Wilde, the playwright says “I have spent my life holding language up to the light, making words shimmer.” Nowhere do words shimmer more in earnest than in Earnest. The entire cast, some from Stratford, is top-notch, as is the gorgeous scenery, also replicated. And Brian Bedford’s fine-tuned direction and delicately-nuanced, side-splitting performance makes this one a must-see.
Playing through July 3 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street (off Times Square), NYC. Performances Tues-Sat at 8pm; Wed, Sat & Sun at 2. Tickets: 212- 719-1300 or at RoundaboutTheatre.org