BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
"The Importance of Being Earnest" is a dear old darling for some of us, but detecting a note of surprise to the laughter heard arising from the audience at certain twists in the story, it's evident to me that Oscar Wilde's classic must be completely new to some spectators at the American Airlines Theatre, where Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of the 1895 play opened on Thursday.
How lovely it must be to encounter this wonderful comedy for the first time — and in such a pleasant production as this one, which isn't flawless but certainly offers a nimble, clearly spoken rendering of the piece in pretty circumstances.
Let's skip plot specifics of Wilde's glittering lampoon of Victorian attitudes and morals involving earnest Jack and debonair Algernon except to note that David Furr performs with perfect gravity as the former while Santino Fontana obviously is not to the 1890s manners born as the latter gent. Fontana's facetious acting tends to hobble somewhat the first act's proceedings but he relaxes as the comedy rolls along.As for the young ladies in the story, Charlotte Parry's Cecily scarcely looks like the freshest rose in the garden but she portrays the character ingenuously enough and contrasts nicely against Sarah Topham's glib, assured Gwendolen. Their verbal skirmish over the teacups is a prime example of genteel bitchery.
What makes this "Earnest" important — or at least notable — is the magnificent presence and expertise of Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell, the formidable dowager who grimly terrorizes the play's young people. To thus depict such a figurehead of female Victorian rectitude in drag points up the subversive nature of Wilde's comedy.
Never once stooping to any campy effects or signaling the joke that it's a man occupying the matron's voluminous finery, Bedford firmly characterizes Lady Bracknell as a regally imperious dragon who clearly enjoys her power to discomfit others.
Droll cameo turns by a prune-faced Dana Ivey as the starchy governess Miss Prism and an amiable Paxton Whitehead as the dithery Rev. Chasuble lend further proficiency to the production, which has been ably staged at a smart pace by Bedford. Designer Desmond Heeley contributes three airy settings that suggest Wilde's comedy is unfolding within silvery impressionist paintings.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" continues through March 6 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.