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Brian Bedford dazzles in drag in Bway’s so-so “Earnest”

Having written and played Oscar Wilde in my own one-man show “Love, Oscar”, I have read every thing he wrote and everything that has been written about him, and so I came to the Broadway revival of his best play “The Importance of Being Earnest” fully loaded, as it were.

Brian Bedford, that most esteemed of great British stage actors working in North America, is starring in it at the American Airlines Theatre, in drag as Lady Bracknell, which is wonderful, and he also directed it, which is considerably less so.

This is shockingly his first major foray into drag, in itself  a great British tradition and Lady Bracknell is the role he was BORN to play obviously. His great made-up face is hovering over Broadway right now and it is really something to see, and utterly memorable.

His performance as Wilde’s legendary social gorgon is probably going to be considered as his most vivid portrayal ever. Especially since we, the American audience, get to see so little of his great stage performances. Mostly for the past twenty years or more, he’s been doing his great work at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

And once in a blue moon, one of those productions transfers here, and we get to see what we’ve been missing. Like Christopher Plummer’s great “King Lear” which was imported intact to Lincoln Center.

And also a number of years back a glittering revival of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” starred Bedford as an aging, befuddled Benedict. It ran for a decidely too-short a time at City Center.

Now, we have his dazzling Lady Bracknell on Broadway itself, in a half-American, half-Canadian do-over. Which he directed himself, and that’s the problem.

Nothing in this so-so production comes up to his overwhelming Lady B. Especially glaring is his casting of the two ingenue roles, Gwendolen and Cecily. Both rather plain, odd choices, Sara Topham from Stratford as Gwendolen and particularly Charlotte Parry as Cecily, barely gut the mustard, or even cut it, and Bedford pretty well blows them both off-stage.

 By using such un-ingenue-y ingenues, Bedford assures that his Lady Bracknell is the prettiest girl on the boards. And Topham and Parry are so wearisome, we can’t wait for Lady B. to return to the stage, and she only does appear twice, in two of the best scenes Wilde ever wrote.

Bedford’s production is a very traditional revival of “Earnest.” Lady Bracknell also almost always steals the show, as she does here, with the great introductory scene in Act One, then again the tremendous “handbag” scene in Act Three that works like a charm here because the Lady is front and center for nearly the whole, hilarious discovery/mistaken identity finale.

With two intermissions, you could really skip Act Two completely. Cecily and Gwendolen have to carry it, and they pretty much don’t. But thank god, the great American actress Dana Ivey does turn up as Miss Prism, and makes Act Two her own, and pretty much saved me from exiting the building. When she and Canon Chasuble, (Paxton Whitehead) are billing and cooing, it really is delightful. But then they leave and we’re left in hands of those unfortunate young women.

Wilde is all about Style with a Capital “S” and Bedford himself has it in spades. His outfits designed within an inch of their life by Desmond Heeley, Stratford’s resident costume and set designer, are sumptuous, to-die-for spectacles of overstatement and but also, a strange glamour. 

Lady Bracknell doesn’t just enter a room, she SAILS into it, like a Rose-Bowl float with all flags flying. And Bedford does not overplay this very overblown part. He UNDERdoes it, and creates a very believable British woman of a certain class and type. One can never forget Dame Edith Evans in the movie version, nor anyone else in that British cinema classic, and Bedford decides not to compete by being ever-so-much-quieter in a very LOUD role. Edith Evans BELLOWED her most famous line, “PRISM! Where is my Haaaaand Baaaag?!?” Brian Bedford’s Bracknell snips and sniffs. To great effect, his nostrils perpetually flaring as if smelling something bad.

His movement is minimal. His concentration intense. His enunciation and line reading precise. There is nothing over-the-top about his delicious Lady B as an Old Biddy, except perhaps his costumes and hats.

Lady Bracknell doesn’t laugh. Bedford’s Lady B. is a very serious woman indeed. She is entirely focused in her social climbing, and veddy, veddy determined in all her pursuits. I never noticed before how quite, quite often Lady Bracknell is talking about geography, real estate in particular and addresses that she can recite from memory, and of course, money.

I also had never noticed quite so much that Wilde, particularly in the first act, with Algernon Moncrief(Santino Fontana) and John Worthing(David Furr) is making gay puns and double entendres that the then entirely hidden homosexual community of the time would get, but no one else.

Like the discussion of cucumbers, which of course means something else phallic, if you think about it. The line “No cucumbers could be had even for ready money” that Lane the butler (a not very  convincing or British, Paul O’Brien) says to the always-eating Algernon takes on a WHOLE new meaning. So much of the play is coded for the 1890’s gays. Even the name Bracknell, means something else. A Brack was a swamp. So it’s Swamp Smell. Or something like that. I also always thought he based this his greatest part on his famous mother Lady Wilde, who was almost something of a giant-tess according to his friend and contemporary George Bernard Shaw.

Algernon has never been played as slightly pudgy and a tad bit short before, but this is a slightly interesting new fillup, that Bedford’s production and the casting of American Santino Fontana brings out. He’s always in pursuit of some kind of food, meals, teas, cakes, anything that adds a new wrinkle, but not much else to this always under-developed character. Michael Redgrave played him in the movie, as a dashing, upper-class leading man and usually the role is done that way.

Fontana’s Algy departs from that more than quite a bit, to say the least. He is dark, giggly, and devishly funny in a bouncy sort of way.

David Furr, as his partner in Bunburying (and if you think about THAT double entendre…well, I rest my case) is tall, and hefty. More of the leading man than Fontana, but a burly, he-man jock type. The sort you also never see in this part. He’s tall. Fontana isn’t. So they form a sort-of-Mutt ‘n’ Jeff comedy duo. Bedford has them enter at the beginning of the play whistling Laurel and Hardy’s movie theme song, for instance. Gilding the lily a tad, aren’t we, Brian?

Furr and Fontana, last year’s Drama Desk Award Winner for Best Featured Actor in a Play for the short-lived “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, fare much better however than the ill-cast ingenues. And Paxton Whitehead is befuddled, maybe a bit too much so, as Conon Chasuble.

Wilde legend has it wrote “Importance of Being Earnest” in a weekend, or a week, for money. He wrote it while staying at place called Worthing, which is of course, one of the leading character’s name. It’s one of the greatest comedies of all times, and his greatest success. This all occuring before tragedy struck WHILE THIS PLAY WAS STILL RUNNING and he was the Toast of London.

Then, when he sued the Marquess of Queensbury, his lover, Bosey’s father, for slander for Posing as a Somdomite,” which proved true, he landed in jail for two years of hard-labor, because in modern parlance, he came out of the closet. Homosexuality was completley illegal at that time. His life was ruined at the same time his legend was made.

But his glittering wit and intelligence lives merrily on even in this half-successful “Important of Being Earnest.” Brian Bedford’s Bracknell will be the role he is most remembered for, so go see it for that, and for Dana Ivey, but not much else.

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