Stage Review

The Importance of Being Earnest (2011)

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Sara Topham, David Furr, and Brian Bedford
Image credit: Joan Marcus
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST Sara Topham, David Furr, and Brian Bedford
EW's GRADE
A-

Details Opening Date: Jan 13, 2011; Lead Performance: Brian Bedford; Writer: Oscar Wilde; Director: Brian Bedford; Genres: Comedy, Revival

There have been precious few laughs coming from the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre the past few seasons, so thank goodness someone had the sense to import Brian Bedford — who's starred in Roundabout productions of Tartuffe, London Assurance, and The Molière Comedies — from Canada's Stratford Festival. Bedford directed (and starred in) The Importance of Being Earnest there in 2009; now he's brought his vision, his deliciously deadpan Lady Bracknell, his set/costume designer, and his ingenue (Sara Topham) to Broadway. The result, thankfully, is a perfectly pitched, fantastically funny rendition of Oscar Wilde's self-subtitled ''Trivial Comedy for Serious People.''

Earnest is about a man named John (David Furr) going by the name Ernest to win over Gwendolyn (Topham), a man named Algernon (Santino Fontana) posing as Ernest to win over Cecily (Charlotte Parry), and an old battle-ax, Lady Bracknell (Bedford), who's standing in everyone's way. But Earnest is essentially all about talking. Talking in the morning room, talking in the garden, talking in the drawing room — these characters do nothing but talk. (And drink tea. Because, as Algernon says, ''it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o'clock.'')

Credit Bedford the director for teaching his ensemble the art of the Wildean one-liner: Never go for the laugh, never add a physical flourish, never look pleased with yourself. And credit Bedford the actor for his incredibly understated gender-bending star turn as Lady Bracknell; he could easily steal either of his scenes with the slightest eyebrow lift or cock of his head — though Desmond Heeley's hats (ostentatious birdlike creations) are almost scene-stealers in themselves. (Heeley has also created some stunning dress-and-hat ensembles for the tiny-waisted Topham — very Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.)

Kudos especially to the ever-versatile Fontana — best known on Broadway as the angry older brother in Billy Elliot — as the ''ostentatiously eligible'' Algernon, who gets the bulk of Wilde's ridiculously clever bons mots. If there is a visible romantic spark between him and Parry, I'm afraid I missed it, but Fontana does have a spot-on British accent and an immense likability — more important in my book. Also a treat: stage veterans Dana Ivey and Paxton Whitehead as the prim governess and bumbling local rector who enjoy a terrifically brazen flirtation. The stern, strong-jawed Ivey, in fact, has all the makings of a wonderful Lady Bracknell. She'd be lucky to land the role in a top-drawer production like this one. A-

(Tickets: RoundaboutTheater.org or 212-719-1300)

Originally posted Jan 13, 2011