People make a big deal about a comedy in reruns that gets laughs the second time around.
Try one made 105 years ago.
“The Importance of Being Earnest,” by the brilliant gay icon Oscar Wilde, is enjoying a magnificent production at American Airlines Theatre.
Brian Bedford, in high drag as Lady Bracknell, is spectacular. Bedford, a longtime stage actor who was classmates at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts with Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney, also directs this production. He knows precisely what he’s doing.
Bedford drops his voice an octave or two when Lady Bracknell is being particularly difficult, and knows how to get a laugh with only a jut of his chin.
The improbable plot has Algernon Moncrieff (Santino Fontana) as the indolent playboy nephew of Lady Bracknell. He’s pals with Jack Worthing (David Furr), who wants to marry Lady Bracknell’s daughter, Gwendolyn (Sara Topham).
The society battleaxe requires Worthing’s papers – genetic and financial. Of course his pedigree is lacking; as a baby he was left in a bag at a train station.
As Lady Bracknell questions Worthing, she asks him what he knows. He claims to know nothing.
“I am pleased to hear it,” Lady Bracknell says. “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”
Of course, Worthing is not good enough for Gwendolyn, despite that he adores her, has plenty of property and a healthy bank account.
A crazy day in the country finds the freeloader Algernon visiting Worthing, and Algernon is immediately smitten with Worthing’s ward, Cecily (Charlotte Parry).
Everyone wants to couple and no one is allowed, with the major obstacle being Lady Bracknell, as formidable and immutable as Big Ben.
Though the young women, Cecily and Gwendolyn (kudos to those who recognize those names as the Pigeon sisters from “The Odd Couple”), don’t have many funny lines, Lady Bracknell makes up for everyone.
Bedford milks every line, and is delightfully preposterous in his get-up of elaborate hats with bows and ribbons, gloves, lace, brocade, brooches, earrings, wigs, purses and brocaded skirts; only the brave know if there’s a bustle and corset under there.
Wilde’s quotes are well known, and for good reason — he was arch, hilarious and memorable. Many are from this Victorian play.
When Lady Bracknell is cross-examining Worthing that she asks if his parents are living.
“I have lost both my parents,” Worthing says.
“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune,” Lady Bracknell says. “To lose both looks like carelessness.”
Wilde, who did hard labor in prison for his homosexuality, wrote sharp, magnificent lines. And, they should be foolproof. But in comparison, a production of this at the Abbey Theatre in Wilde’s hometown of Dublin a few years ago, was fairly dismal.
In this, every actor, every set, every costume and every moment is perfect.