I've had a love affair with The Importance of Being Earnest since I was in college and appeared in a student-directed production of Ernest in Love, a flawed but charming musical based on Oscar Wilde's delightful send-up of Victorian societal conventions. For me, the show has always held an irresistible fascination, representing a perfect little world of genuinely clueless people, who nonetheless firmly believe every last utterance that issues forth from their convention-addled little brains.
Pulling off the feat of creating Wilde's ridiculous world requires a firm directorial hand. Such direction was sorely lacking from the most recent film version of Earnest, and somewhat uneven in the recent Off-Broadway revival of Ernest in Love.
Alas, the same can be said for the current Broadway revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, although I do get the sense that I'm in the minority here. The production truly comes alive whenever Brian Bedford is on stage. Bedford gives a truly virtuoso comic performance here as that fabulous Gorgon, Lady Bracknell. He embodies her heart and soul, bringing to the role a delightful sense of pomposity, wringing humor from even the most seemingly mundane of Wilde's rejoinders.
But, as often happens when actors helm productions in which they star, Bedford the director hasn't fully succeeded in bringing all of his fellow actors into the same Wildean world. The cast is sublimely talented to a person, but they all seem to be acting in different productions. Truthfully, each of those productions would likely be a delight to witness, but somehow those worlds don't combine into the heady and intoxicating concoction that the play has the potential to be.
The disparate styles present in the three central scene partnerships in the show embody a good deal of what's missing from the show. In the central role of Algernon, Santino Fontana is full of puckish charm and impish delight. It makes me sort of sad I missed him in last season's short-lived Brighton Beach Memoirs. But David Furr as Jack Worthing, seems to be in a completely different world from that of Fontana, which throws off the rhythm of their many scenes together. Furr is forced when Fontana is effortless, and it robs their scenes of comedic momentum.
Likewise mismatched are Charlotte Parry as Cecily Cardew and Sara Topham as Gwendolyn Fairfax. Again, we have Topham's twinkling, easy charm with Parry's more studied vacuousness which produces a very similar plodding nature to scenes that should ideally brim with effervescence.
As if on cue, we have yet another discordant couple in Dana Ivey as Miss Prism and Paxton Whitehead as Reverend Chasuble. Ivey would seem to be perfect for the role, but here eschews her more typical intense underplaying for a melodramatic style that would seem more at home in a Restoration comedy. Whitehead's style seems a bit more appropriate to the piece at hand, giving Chasuble an arch yet restrained countenance that the rest of the cast could have greatly benefited from.
Again, I would seem to be alone in finding fault with this production, because just today we heard the announcement that the show has been extended a whopping 17 weeks, through July 3rd. (A move that has prompted the Roundabout to shift its upcoming production of the intriguing new musical The People in the Picture, starring the marvelous Donna Murphy, to the Studio 54.) Despite my quibbles, the production is well worth seeing. I just really wish it had been more enchanting, and less of a slog.