Wilde Again! Importance of Being Earnest, With Brian Bedford, Opens on Broadway

By Kenneth Jones
January 13, 2011

The new Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest — Oscar Wilde's rarefied comedy of epigrams, mistaken identity, cucumber sandwiches and English breakfast tea — has fully steeped. It opens Jan. 13 at the American Airlines Theatre.



Directed by and starring Tony Award winner Brian Bedford, the 1895 comedy is produced by Roundabout Theatre Company, borrowing some elements from Bedford's popular 2009 production at Ontario's Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an artistic home for Bedford . Like some famous male performers before him, Bedford plays the imperious British matron Lady Augusta Bracknell, who is one of several mouthpieces conveying Wilde's satiric ideas about romance, social standing and manners.

The role, of course, was written to be played by an actress (Edith Evans starred in the famous 1952 film, Judi Dench starred in a 2002 film), but some modern directors and producers seek to underline Bracknell's gorgon quality by putting a man in the role. As preview audiences have noted, Bedford plays her "straight," conjuring the withering humor rather than campy cartoon.

Sara Topham (as Gwendolyn) and the sets and costumes of designer Desmond Heeley are among the central holdovers from the Canadian production. Heeley told Playbill.com that his hand-painted, non-literal sets were purposeful: Wilde's world is arch and artificial, and the visual world reflects that. The show curtain, for which Heeley did some of the painting himself, shows Brittania and a "VR" (for Victoria Regina), suggesting a Victorian playhouse in England. Footlights make gold leaf sparkle on that curtain. Heeley admitted it's not paint or gold-leaf: "It's Christmas paper."

Broadway previews began Dec. 17, 2010. Paxton Whitehead, Santino Fontana, David Furr, Tim MacDonald, Paul O'Brien, Charlotte Parry, Sara Topham, Amanda Leigh Cobb and Dana Ivey join Bedford in his production of the classic.

In Earnest, according to Roundabout, "dashing men-about-town John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff pursue fair ladies Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew. Matters are complicated by the imaginary characters invented by both men to cover their on-the-sly activities — not to mention the disapproval of Gwendolen's mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell."

Bedford told Playbill magazine in recent weeks, "There's a sort of laser-like perception of the hypocrisy of the Victorian era, the pseudo-morality. Everything was hidden. I think there were more brothels in London during Victorian times than there ever had been or ever has been. And, of course, the lady on the throne called the shots. I've read a great deal about what people have thought of this play, and nobody has ever mentioned the similarity between Lady Bracknell and Queen Victoria. It's so striking, to me. That was part of the subversive nature of this play. It's a very subversive play."

Ivey (Butley, Driving Miss Daisy) plays Cecily's tutor Miss Prism, Whitehead (Absurd Person Singular, My Fair Lady, Lettice and Lovage) plays Reverend Chasuble, Fontana (Billy Elliot) plays Oxford lad Algernon Moncrieff, Furr (Accent on Youth, Cymbeline) plays his pal Jack Worthing, MacDonald plays manservant Merriman, O'Brien plays butler Lane, Parry (Coram Boy) plays Cecily Cardew and Topham plays Gwendolyn and Cobb is a Servant (and understudy). The company also includes understudies Sean Arbuckle, Colin McPhillamy and Sandra Shipley.

This is a limited engagement through March 6.

The production team also includes Duane Schuler (lights), Drew Levy (sound), Berthold Carrière (original music), Paul Huntley (hair and wig design), Robyn Henry (production stage manager) and Bryce McDonald (stage manager).

British-born international star Bedford (a Tony winner for The School for Wives, and a six-time nominee) returns to Roundabout Theatre Company after performances as Orgon in Tartuffe, Sir Harcourt Courtly in London Assurance and Sganarelle in The Molière Comedies.

Ivey returns to Roundabout after playing Grace in the 2003 production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and the 2001 production of Major Barbara, where she played Lady Britomart Undershaft.

Tickets are available by calling Roundabout Ticket Services at (212) 719-1300, online at www.roundabouttheatre.org or at the American Airlines Box Office (227 West 42nd Street).