Gender-crossing actors and roles are nothing new to theater, but Brian Bedford’s performance as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, currently in performances at the American Airlines Theater, is something new – a complete transformation of gender so thorough and impressive that audience members who do not read their Playbills may not even know it is a man they are watching onstage.
Bedford also directs this production, which is a nearly pitch-perfect presentation of Wilde’s satire on Victorian propriety. The trials and tribulations of two young men – Jack Worthing (David Furr) and Algernon Moncrieff (Santino Fontana) – wooing two decidedly eccentric women both determined to marry a man named Earnest – Gwendolen Fairfax (Sara Topham) and Cecily Cardew (Charlotte Parry) respectively – The Importance of Being Earnest depicts the nonsense and frivolity of British social hierarchy in a thoroughly amusing and delightful manner.
Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother and Algernon’s aunt, spoken of fondly as “a monster, without being a myth,” is the force that may prevent the wedded bliss of the two couples. She looms in the background, resplendent in velvet and ribbons, presiding over the young lovers and delivering comedic gems such as, “to lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The epitome of what is respectable and right, Bracknell is so confident in her status and assured of her importance that the idea of anyone disobeying her is downright shocking.
One of the most popular and performed roles in the theater, Lady Bracknell is a wealth of opportunity for a skilled actor and Bedford’s portrayal of her is nothing short of remarkable. Aside from a few lines spoken in a deep voice, he does not resort to any gimmicks or cross-dressing stereotypes. Instead, he plays Bracknell as what she is – a lady. It is the character who is making the audience laugh, not the actor. The rest of the cast follows Bedford’s example, and they form a truly delightful ensemble. As Worthing, Furr is an upright but entertaining man, and Fontina’s Algernon is truly amusing. The opening scene between the two feels slightly forced and rushed but they relax into their roles as the performance continues. Tompham is excellent as Gwendolyn and she looks completely ravishing in the period-perfect costumes. Parry gives an equally impressive performance as Cecily and the two actresses share a tangible chemistry. The garden scene where they meet, befriend each other, and argue bitterly all within twenty minutes of each other is thoroughly entertaining and a highlight of an evening brimming with comedic gems.
Dana Ivey plays Miss Prism to perfection and Paxon Whitehead is clearly having a fine time as Rev. Canon Chausible. Desmond Heeley’s sets and costumes are nothing short of gorgeous and only add another aspect of this production to admire. To miss seeing this show would be truly careless.