Beyond Twitter, it is Oscar Wilde once again, who demonstrates the eloquence of the terse expression. Deftly directed by Brian Bedford, the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest, brings immediacy and humor to Wilde’s playful language, and his famous aphorisms.
This stands out even in the obvious, narrative-driven scene in Act I, where Algernon (Santino Fontana) challenges his old friend Jack Worthing (David Furr) about pretending to be a man named Ernest, charging him with the observation that the English “are always degrading truths into facts, and when truths become facts they loose all their intellectual value”. It is an irreverent remark that appears enigmatic when spoken. Giving it credibility, is the work of the satirist.
As the story unfolds, we discover that Jack is an orphan whose Christian name is actually Ernest. Since it’s the name that Gwendolen (Sarah Topham) loves – and only Ernest who she will marry – the “fact” frees him to fulfill his higher ambition, romantic fulfillment. At the same time, it allows him to relinquish a tedious intellectual past time – studying the biographies of British generals.
As it turns out, the audience can cherish and feel fully entertained by the abandonment of “intellectual values”, as they prove to be pretenses that disguise the truth. (Wilde engages us in that observation by weaving the matter of British generals into his intricately fabricated plot.)
In capturing the nuances of disguise, Brian Bedford proves himself a master, not only in his direction, but also in his portrayal of Lady Bracknell. If the audience didn’t know better, we would still marvel at the deep, manly voice that emerges from such a proper conservative lady.
Similarly, Santino Fontana captures the moral paradox of Algernon, a character who also pretends to be Ernest when, in fact, he has little interest in serious matters. Fontana mines the pun on the titular name while displaying a buoyant physical life that appears at turns unconscious and overly self-aware. One can’t tell when the actor is being truthful or when he’s faking. The irony of “Ernest” is the ability to be both (or neither) simultaneously.
Finally, unity is achieved when Algernon meets the woman of his destiny, Cecily (Charlotte Parry) Jack Worthing’s ward, the wealthy young woman who can enable him in his pursuit of the good life, as he perceives it. Ironically, their relationship speaks to the “vital Importance of Being Earnest”.
Wilde’s satire of Victorian marriage and principals is embodied in these self-interested youth with such finesse that it slides off the palette; their trivialities are the source of such good humor and their escapades so delightfully entertaining that we readily embrace them.
In the midst of it all, the playwright provides a brilliant array of observations – aphoristic expressions that explore the nature of character, the hypocrisy of society and the even greater hypocrisy of those who criticize it, along with the failure of education and certain educators. The latter is represented in the character of Miss Prism (rendered by the incomparable Dana Ivey) who, having confused a book with a baby, left the infant Ernest (Jack Worthing) in a handbag at Victoria Station. In spite of – or maybe because of – her irresponsible behavior, it is she who brings the characters and their relationships into full light.
That the satire plays with such a gleeful and undermining edge more than 100 years later reflects Bedford’s ability to marry his ensemble of actors with the richness of Wilde’s language and the irreverence of his thought.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, is a limited run through July 3rd. For tickets call 212-719-1300, go to the box office or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre