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Oh, Earnestly . . .

The other must-see show that I have neglected to review for more than two weeks is the production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” now playing at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre.

This makes, I think, the fourth “Earnest” I’ve seen, and all around the strongest. When I say this was the strongest “Earnest” I’ve seen, I’m including the original Stratford mount of this same production, which I saw at opening two years ago and reviewed at my other blog. It’s interesting to see it again, two years later, with a mostly different cast, in a different space. For much of the first act, I found myself musing on the degree to which the differences I observed reflected the passage of time, the change of personnel, and the difference in location. By the time we entered the second act, though, I was far too deeply “in” the play to be musing about any such thing.

That should be a clue to the first major difference. In Stratford, I found the production strongest at the start, weaker at the end. This mounting struck me exactly the opposite way: not entirely there at the start, but progressively building strength to quite a powerful finish.

I attribute that major difference to all three factors. First, the passage of time. Only two cast members came from the original production to New York: Brian Bedford (of course) as Lady Bracknell, and Sara Topham, as Gwendolyn. I suspect my reservations about Bedford’s performance in Canada had mostly to do with opening-night effects; in New York I found him absolutely assured, his timing impeccable. I’m a huge fan of Topham’s, and I thought she did a fine job in the role last time, but I found her performance a bit too precise, too calculated. This time, she was relaxed – and the performance was far more powerful. There was none of the archness that sometimes crept into her voice before. She felt more real – and, for that very reason, both more terrifying (you really could see her growing up to become like her mother) and more endearing (you really felt her anxiety in her tea-drinking scene with Cecily). I’m inclined partly to attribute this to purely the passage of time and her consequent growing comfort (plus the fact that I wasn’t seeing her at opening this time, and openings often have a tense quality). But I also attribute it to the effect of playing Tourvel last year at Stratford in “Dangerous Liasons”. That was a role that, I felt, got her well out of her comfort zone, and that I also felt brought out some of her best work ever. It felt to me at the time like something of a breakthrough performance, and I like to think that we’re seeing the fruits of that breakthrough in her Gwendolyn. She not acting as much as she used to. She’s being, and becoming.

Topham’s stronger Gwendolyn also has a stronger sparring partner in Charlotte Parry’s Cecily. Parry manifests the requisite degree of self-involvement, which (along with her enormous wealth) gives her a cliff-like invulnerability that Topham crashes against again and again in their first second-act scene together. (Parry’s Cecily also completely overmatches her Algernon in their courtship scene, which is just as it should be.) But Topham also has an (apparently) weaker partner in David Furr’s Jack, which also works to her advantage. Ben Carlson is an exceptionally intelligent actor, and his Jack exhibited that intelligence from the first – which made him a great deal of fun to watch. But, seeing Topham with Furr, I wonder whether it ultimately served the drama as well. Furr’s Jack is much less sure of himself, much more obviously intimidated both by Gwendolyn and by Lady Bracknell. As well he should be – Bracknell is not merely difficult, she’s a gorgon! And it makes sense that Gwendolyn – clearly in command of that relationship in the courtship scene; she must direct him to propose properly – would choose a man who she senses on one level she’ll always be able to intimidate. Their courtship scene isn’t quite as funny as Topham’s was with Carlson, but it had more heart in it. And the Act III confrontation between Jack and Lady Bracknell packs a great deal more punch if you can sense that it’s taking all Jack has to stand his ground against this formidable woman.

Jack is, to my mind, the most interesting character in the drama, and the one I’ve seen played the most different ways. Algernon is always witty and trivial and impossible for Jack to catch – Santino Fontana does a creditable job with the role here, but perhaps too perfectly embodies his aunt’s assessment of him: “he has nothing but looks everything.” Gwendolyn is always the junior version of her mother, born to rule. Cecily is always charmingly self-involved, fully aware of her advantages but somehow never overbearing in their deployment. And Lady Bracknell is … Lady Bracknell. But Jack Worthing is a bit protean, an altogether different person each time he is re-inhabited by a new actor, and the whole play changes as he does. I’ve seen him done with triviality to rival Algie’s (by Donald Carrier), and the play around him became trivial as well. I’ve seen him done with a veritable smolder, not so much earnest as deadly serious (by Evan Buliung); he stalked the play like a caged animal and almost took the whole thing over – he wasn’t scared so much of Lady Bracknell or her daughter as he was of showing the signs of triviality Lady Bracknell thought he showed at the end. And I’ve seen him done with forceful intelligence and a sharp wit (by Ben Carlson), which made the scenes with Algie spark and and gleam, but there was a Shavian quality to his courtship that dulled the scenes with the women just enough to weaken the conclusion of the drama. And now I’ve seen him done vulnerable, anxious, even a bit fearful – with just a touch of an estuary accent, a sign, perhaps, of his railway-station origins. And the consequence is that the sparring with Algernon isn’t as brisk and sharp as one would like, but the ending is surprisingly moving in its, well, earnestness.

And that makes sense to me because Jack is who this play is really about. Jack is the undefined, the man who doesn’t know who he is, and who has built this construct of earnestness to compensate for that lack of native confidence – a construct that has, quite to his surprise, won him the woman of his dreams. And he’s also the one who changes. In the courtship scene, Gwendolyn is in command – she directs his proposal, and she also directs him in planning to outfox her mother. But in the final scene, Gwendolyn is the obedient daughter, cowed by her terrifying mother, while Jack stands up to her, making full use of the leverage he unexpectedly discovers. This is what establishes that he is his own man, and not just the earnest construct that he’s been trying to embody. And then, of course, when his true name and parentage are unearthed, it is revealed that he has been telling the truth all the time. It’s a marvelous journey to go on, and I’m not surprised that each actor I’ve seen take it has traveled by a different path.

The one thing that didn’t change even with significant alteration is the set. Miraculously, even though (as I understand it) the set basically had to be recreated rather than simply reconstructed, it felt the same as it did in Canada, and just as alluring to the eye. And while I thought it was only Canadians who applaud the set when the curtain goes up, apparently New Yorkers will as well, if the set was designed and built by Desmond Heeley.

Tickets are somewhat scarce, but this is not one to miss.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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