Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I recently sat in on an early preview of Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of The Importance of Being Earnest (opening at the American Airlines Theatre on January 13), and I must say that it is in fantastic shape a brand new robot.

I first saw director Brian Bedford's delightful production of The Importance of Being Earnest at The Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2009, and much of what made that production so successful has been unearthed for the Broadway production. However, everything else that made it successful - i.e. the fun - has been burnt to an unrecognizable crisp. The Importance of Being Earnest, as written, should resemble and taste like cookie crisp - Sweet, crunchy...Sad when you are finished - not the depressing ashes of a once powerful Redwood.

I loved just about everything about Bedford's production at the Stratford Festival - the performances, the set, the music - everything made it a highlight of their 2009 season. In its Broadway incarnation, the brightest light onstage, and what really makes this production worth your while is Bedford's fantastically muted performance as the sardonic Lady Bracknell.

Many people have posed the question, "Why do we continue to put men in this role when we have plenty of capable actresses?"

Good question.

I would say that Lady Bracknell is so hard-edged and unfeminine that switching the actor's gender becomes the easiest way of relaying that attitude to an audience speedily and effectively. In the case of this production, you would be hardpressed to find an actor or actress today who has a better handle on Wilde's language than Brian Bedford. The way he plays with the pitch and rythym while keeping the fabulous formality of Wilde's text is nothing short of exhilirating. The laughs come quickly and unexpectedly.

But sometimes Brian Bedford is not onstage. Here is where the problems lie.

I did not strongly dislike any of these performances, and keep in mind that they are still in previews - so take this as you will.

Algernon (Santino Fontana) and Jack (David Furr) lack any sort of discernable chemistry. A great amount of the joy of Earnest comes from Algy and Jack's un/planned hijinks, but here their relationship is rather unclear. Individually they are fine. I found Santino Fontana's youthful energy to be refreshing and Furr's channeling of Gomez Adams to be clever. They can keep those things- but they need to figure out who they are as a pair.

I feel similarly about Charlotte Parry as Cecily and Sara Topham as Gwendolyn, though the problem scale in this couple is leaning towards Topham. Her peformance is one of the few carryovers from Stratford's production, and I must say that it is just about note-for-note identical. For a moment I had deja vu, and thought I was in Canada. At least I didn't need to being my passport this time around...

Parry's Cecily is adorable and much more of a tomboy than one usually sees, but Topham's rigidity seems to be preventing any progress those two could potentially make together as scene partners. The ensemble is just fine. Dana Ivey is an enjoyable Miss Prism, but she occasionally crosses over into camp. Paxton Whitehead as Reverend Chasuble is making a lot out of a thankless role. Kudos!

One of the biggest letdowns of this Earnest is the scenic design by Desmond Heeley. The set at Stratford, that Roundabout is attempting to approximate, was astonishingly cool. It gave the illusion of being two-dimensional when it actually had great depth. The metallic gray tones used here and there intelligently highlight the costumes while simultaneously reflecting the social uniformity of the period.

I realize that this production has a limited run, but the set should at least seem somewhat permanent. Support wires are unfortunately visible from just about everywhere you look - giving the scenery a flimsy, touring set appearance. The effort to marry the set with its new theatre appears minimal. It just doesn't fit. The lighting design by Duane Schuler was lovely - lighting actors well while indicating the difference between the indoor and outdoor scenes in a way that wasn't too on-the-nose. The sound design by Drew Levy was made up mostly of playful original music whose bouncy tone these actors should work harder to match.

Don't get me wrong - this production is plenty enjoyable. It made for a nice evening overall, and Bedford's performace was like drinking a cold Arnold Palmer. But with such marvelous material (and not to mention Roundabout's ample resources), this mostly stale production of The Importance of Being Earnest should be an important event. However, as it stands, it is not. It lacks the spark of its original Stratford Festival production, and falls into the trap of "feeling old." This is the first production of Wilde's beloved play on Broadway since Circle In The Square's in 1977. It would be quite unfortunate if we had to wait another thirty years for something better. I am reminded of Star Wars Episode I. -Johnny Oleksinski.