PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Importance of Being Earnest — Roundabout's Wilde Card

Meet the first-nighters at the opening of Broadway's The Importance of Being Earnest.

Director/cast member Brian Bedford; guests David Pittu, Donna Murphy and Sheldon Harnick
Director/cast member Brian Bedford; guests David Pittu, Donna Murphy and Sheldon Harnick (Photo by Krissie Fullerton)

*

Funnily enough, the importance of being earnest in performing The Importance of Being Earnest is the very thing that makes Oscar Wilde's comic masterpiece so sidesplitting after lo these 115 years. That cardinal rule of comedy was passed down by John Gielgud, who supposedly did the definitive edition in 1939, to his protégé, Brian Bedford, who executed it with flair and fidelity in the ninth Broadway version of the play, which arrived Jan. 13 at the American Airlines Theatre.

Talk about feats first! It is the first time Bedford has directed for Broadway, the first time he has played a female (excluding the Virgin Mary in Catholic boys' school), and the first time the revival-ritualistic Roundabout has done a work of Oscar Wilde's.

Bedford was keen to point out to me last year in an interview that "Oscar first called this 'a serious play for trivial people,' and then — typical of him — he changed it to 'a trivial play for serious people.' I think he was right the first time." And if further corroboration is needed of the serious-play-for-trivial-people notion, there's his impeccable portrayal of Lady Augusta Bracknell, a high-born lady of manners who pretty much rules the drawing-room roost here, befogged, bothered and bewildered by the behavior of the young, viewing it from afar as some kind of strange alien life not connected to her Society.

Magically almost, Bedford manages to erase the lady's gender lines, once the laughter and applause subside from his elaborately gowned (by the great Desmond Heeley) entrances. You start to accept her as the imperious personage she pretends to be. "If you believe it, they believe it," says Bedford of his secret art of persuasion. "That's the big challenge, and that's the thing that really interested me. Although she is, to put it mildly, an idiosyncratic woman, she is a woman. And, of course, she is quite absurd. I think Oscar was the precursor of the Theatre of the Absurd. I don't think it could have happened without Oscar Wilde. Do you remember Charles Ludlam? I don't think Charles would have happened without Oscar Wilde. I don't think Joe Orton would have. I don't think Noel Coward would have. Oscar was a stepping stone to all of those people." Also, there was this: "I'd just played King Lear, and what do you do after you've played King Lear? You play Lady Bracknell." It seemed as logical as day into night when Des McAnuff proposed playing the lady and directing Earnest for his Stratford Festival in Canada. The resulting 2009 production won enough raves (from The New York Times and local papers) to warrant a berth on Broadway.

"I'd never, ever been in the play before — which is kind of surprising, really, that I hadn't played one of the young men. I don't know how I avoided that, but I did."

Was it difficult wearing two hats for this new production, especially when one set of hats came with feathers? "Well, I didn't design the hats — Desmond did — but, yes, it's not easy doing two jobs at once. It's always hard directing a play, and it's always hard to be acting a big part in a play — not that Lady Bracknell is a big part. It isn't. But if this is how you want to spend your life, of course it's marvelous. It's not hard work at all, and you still can't believe that you get paid for what you love so much."

[flipbook] Spry and dry at 75, Bedford lords over (or is it ladies over?) this Wilde romp, which is the second play to ask the question, "What's in a name?" Gwendolen Fairfax ( Sara Topham) and Cecily Cardew ( Charlotte Parry) get it into their pretty little airheads they can only love/marry an Ernest, "a name that inspires absolute confidence" — quite a quandary for the only swains in site: Algernon Moncrieff ( Santino Fontana) and Jack Worthing ( David Furr), but, what the hell, both are up for rechristening if it smoothes the course of true love.

There is also a late-arriving subplot raising the question of legitimacy and involving a baby in a handbag. (" A handbag!" Bedford gasps hilariously with a horror that seems to shake her foundation.) And while the young mix it up with their name plays and mistaken identifies, there's some delightful senior-citizen silliness afoot that allows Dana Ivey (as Cecily's governess, Miss Prism) to play her coquette card on Paxton Whitehead (as the stooped, rather stupid Rev. Canon Chasuble).

"Paxton and I go back a very, very long way," admits Ivey. "We've known each other for — I don't even want to say how many years, but he was in the first play I did when I came back from studying in drama school in England. I played his mother. I was in my 20s and doing character parts. I played Mrs. Higgins, and he was Prof. Higgins. We started off a long time ago, so it's a pleasure to be back with Paxton."

The feeling is entirely mutual, he seconds. "We haven't worked that often together, but we've known each other and been in the same company for years, if not always in the same play. Chasuble's a small part, but I love the lines, and I love the comedy."

Fontana still had his Algernon exuberance when he met the press in the theatre lobby prior to zipping two or three doors down the block in the Arctic night air to the afterparty-in-progress at B.B. King's. "I love everything about this character — his levity and his way of looking at things and saying, 'Aw, who cares?' — his being able to enjoy life. His entire goal is to enjoy himself. That's not only been a great life-lesson for me, it's been a real pleasure to play. It's rare that I get to play characters who are not more internally conflicted, so it has been a great thing to be a light one."

He especially liked the way Bedford directed the play for nuance and naturalism. "That's the trick about this play and also this part. First of all, everyone knows it. If you read it just like it's on the page, it will be entertaining — but you won't believe people are actually talking. And that's a challenge — to try to make it like someone just talking and living in the moment. That's what Oscar really did. Yeah, he wrote this great script, but he also put people in great situations, and what audiences are coming to see is us behaving in them, living in them, and that's what's really tricky with this play because you can get by without doing it because it's really funny."

Furr, who plays the other worthy, Worthing, also appreciated Bedford's direction. "I enjoy the demands he puts on the language because I come from a Shakespeare background. I enjoy language. And acting with him is great fun. His character is very disapproving of my character so, when we were acting together in the beginning, it was very strange. You wonder if it's the actor or the director who's disapproving."

Parry, who does "a lot of audio books, mostly young adult fiction," when she's not doing Grade-A Broadway ( The Real Thing and Coram Boy), finds Cecily charmingly callow and likes her that way. "She's so silly. She's in her own world." And what would her favorite name for a beau be? "Well, my boyfriend's name is Adam Radford, so I'd say Adam. It's a perfect name."

The Gwendolen of the evening, Topham, opts for Brian. It seems that she's married to Brian Aaron, a schoolteacher, and this "causes a little bit of a problem sometimes with Brian Bedford, who insists on being referred to as Brian No. 1, so my husband has been willingly demoted to the position of Brian No. 2."

Topham, Bedford and Tim MacDonald (Bedford's partner), who plays butler Merriman, are the only cast transfers from the Stratford revival, and she did detect some slight changes in audience temperatures. "I think Canada is perhaps slightly more ingrained to the British sensibility," she offers, "but I have to say that the audiences here have been wonderful and welcoming, and I'm having a lovely time. I'm working on Broadway!"

For the first time, she could add, and doing it in duds and sets by the legendary Desmond Heeley. "He's one of the treasures of our world. He's a piece of theatre history, so, to get to wear such spectacular clothes — it's a Victorian picture book."


Buy this Limited Collector's Edition

This is not Heeley's first shot at Earnest. Judi Dench (a Lady Bracknell in the Colin Firth- Rupert Everett film remake of '02), was a 22-year-old Cecily when he first did it at London's Aldwyck. "She was divine even then."

He has been on Broadway eight times (memorably in 1973's Cyrano, 1980-81's Camelot and 1989's The Circle), and he has the distinction of being the first person (subsequently followed by Franne Lee for Candide and Maria Bjornson for The Phantom of the Opera) to win Tonys for both scenic design and costume design of the same show. That show was 1967's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and "I have so many stories about that," says the 79-year-old designer. "Guess what? We were a tax loss for David Merrick, y'know. It was like Springtime for Hitler. Some creative accounting."

Heeley has always been a set-and-costume one-man band. "It's like one picture," he explains. "I think it's the easiest way to do. It's a little harder now because what's happened is so many people have to be involved, and that makes it much more difficult. The fewer people you have, the more efficient it is. The folks at Roundabout couldn't have been nicer. It was a wonderful welcome back to New York."

Bedford may be the only way to get Heeley back to Broadway. "Since '78, when we did Titus Andronicus, it must be 20 times I've worked with him," the actor says. "Reliable is not a good enough word. His sense of theatre and what works and what is theatre-size and what is theatrically exciting — that's where he is a master. "The set is a very important part to our approach to Earnest. It is a farce, and it could only take place on stage. It couldn't possibly take place in real life so we decided to set it, very obviously, on a stage. I wanted to have footlights and all that. Somehow we ended up not having them at Stratford, but we have them here."

Desmond Heeley
photo by Krissie Fullerton

Jane Greenwood, herself constantly working as a class-act costumer and busy as hell these days (on That Championship Season and The House of Blue Leaves), hovered worshipfully around Heeley. "Desmond was my teacher at the Central School, and I'm very excited to see him tonight," she explained.

Patricia Conolly (a.k.a. Gwendolen in the last Broadway revival of Earnest 33 years ago at Circle in the Square and surfacing Jan. 26 at the Lucille Lortel in the Atlantic Theatre revival of The New York Idea), was there in support of her Significant Other, Colin McPhillamy, Whitehead's understudy. They met in 1999 while working Waiting in the Wings.

Tony-winning performers in attendance included Alan Cumming, Jane Alexander, Roger Rees, Cynthia Nixon, Andrea Martin, Michael Cerveris, Debra Monk, Boyd Gaines and Donna Murphy.

Only two Oscar winners showed: F. Murray Abraham and Estelle Parsons. The latter, on the arm of her Miss Margarida's Way publicist Richard Kornberg, is just back from London where she starred in Deathtrap with Simon Russell Beale and Jonathan Groff, and already she is deep into rehearsing David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People that bows at the Friedman March 3 with Frances McDormand.

Don't let the Anglo-American star-casting going on these days fool you into thinking there'll be a London-to-Broadway transfer, cautions Parsons. "I loved my character in Deathtrap — it was a great experience — but it won't come over." A cluster of directors was present as well— Walter Bobbie, Kathleen Marshall, Scott Ellis, John Tillinger and Jason Moore.

Also: Victor Garber, composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, playwright J. T. Rogers, producer Jed Bernstein, Brooks Ashmanskas, Byron Jennings and Carolyn McCormick, Tony Walton, hair designer Paul Huntley, costumer Marty Pakledinaz, David Pittu, Sarah Steele, Craig Lucas, Kurt Deutsch and Sherie Rene Scott.

Among the happily working actors present: Daniel Davis, bowing Feb. 8 in a secret role in A.R. Gurney's play, Black Tie ("It's sort of a spoiler if I tell you what I play") and Simon Jones, who starts rehearsing Jan 26 for a five-week run in Hartford. "We may be bringing it in because we know The Shuberts are interested in it," he says. Written by Michael Kramer and directed by Michael Wilson, the play is called Divine Rivalry — and the title is not to be taken lightly, notes Jones: "It's a four-hander about Michelangelo, Leonardo, Machiavelli and a character nobody's heard of, which will be me, the president of the council of Florence who has to arbitrate between the three of them. It's kinda fun for 16th-century politics. We'll see how universal that turns out to be."


The cast takes a bow
The cast takes a bow