Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Intermission Talk by TONY VELLELA: January 25, 2011

“The Importance of Being
Earnest,” “Long Story Short”
and Other Observations

What do “Hairspray,” the film “Birdcage” and the current revival of “The Importance of Being Earnest” have in common? Actually, what TWO things?

One, they are all built around well-written and cleverly directed material. And, they all benefit from consummate male actors using their exquisite comedy timing to inhabit larger-than-life female characters – in the case of ‘Hairspray,” the reference is literal. What Harvey Fierstein did for Edna Turnblatt, and Nathan Lane did for Albin, the commanding Brian Bedford now delivers in Oscar Wilde’s epigram-stuffed 1895 classic, as he stalks the stage as Lady Augusta Bracknell. Plus, he directs.

This Roundabout Theatre Company production comes to Broadway from its acclaimed run at Ontario’s 2009 Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a kind of Disneyland for theatre-lovers. The American Airlines theatre stage line is bound by clamshell faux footlights, to evoke theatres of the Victorian era in London and the countryside. And all the excellent design work [Desmond Heeley's set & costumes, Paul Huntley's wigs and hair design and even Duane Schuler's lighting] cheerily take us into that world like the White Rabbit pulling Alice down the rabbit hole. Curtain up, and we’re all the way in.

The un-earnest duo at the center of this love tangle, Algernon [Santino Fontana] and Jack [David Furr] have each created a fictitious, woes-laden fellow – a brother for Algernon, a neighbor for Jack – whose “troubles” always seem to take their creators away from where they are, to get them to where they would rather be. Deceit being the currency of this social set, the lads are comfortably manipulating social situations until each of them gets flattened instantly by Cupid’s pointy slender shaft. For Algernon, it’s Cecily [Charlotte Parry], and Jack’s heart throb is Gwendolen [Sara Topham]. Unfortunately for everyone under thirty, the fair maidens each have a connection to Lady Bracknell. She is Gwendolen’s mother. And, since the elderly Lady in question reigns supreme as matriarch of her clan, it is her self-anointed role to approve of Algernon’s love interest. The Lady doth protest as much, or more, as anyone can.

Bedford knows just how to protest – he does it undiminished confidence, a slight lowering of eyelids, an adjective’s attenuated pronunciation, a slow sweep of the head to harpoon all in the room with a menacing gaze, always prompting waves of laughter and broad, happy smiles. She owns contempt, and we love her for it. Festooned in upholstery-strength brocade, feathers on birds of prey perched forward on hats clinging to their patron, and bodice-distracting ruffles, Bedford resembles [for boomers who know the reference] the actress Doris Packer, seen in the 1950s as Beaver’s often unflinching grade school principal, Mrs. Rayburn. His Lady Bracknell pilots her floor-length ship of state from one revelation to the next, in her to-the-manor-born mission to keep up appearances, shield her daughter and nephew from ill-advised matches, restrict the guests to those worthy of her presence and squelch any possible impropriety that might stain her immaculate white gloves.

All this plotlines muddle of feigned emergencies and instant amour registers more comprehensively on the stage than on the page, because director Bedford has kept his staging crisp and linear. Even the basic set pieces in each act [I = Algernon's morning room in his London flat; II = the garden at the Manor House, Woolton; III = the Manor House Drawing Room] occupy the same relative areas, act to act. This proves all the better for permitting us to absorb the doubles tennis match Wilde has served up – one set of volleys conveys the workings of the plot, while the other set delivers the striking serves and dazzling backhands of Wilde’s breath-taking bons mots – a virtual Wimbledon of witticisms. Wilde’s style influenced comedy-writing for decades to come, even when whimsy substituted for wit, as in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Of the four youngsters, Ms. Parry and Mr. Furr are most engaging due to their well-paced restraint, while Mr. Fontana’s smug mugging seems lifted from the English Music Hall realm. Rounding out the cast of characters are Dana Ivey as Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor, and Paxton Whitehead, as the clueless Rev. Chasuble. When Jack’s real provenance is improbably and hilariously unearthed, until Act Three thought to be the undeclared presumed orphan famously cradled in an abandoned handbag railway station coat room, it shatters Prism’s staunchly conservative reputation. Ivey’s performance, tagged ‘redoubtable’ by many, is in fact far more – it matches Bedford’s diamond-sharp moment-to-moment savvy, a triumph of tiny choices and self-control.

Since both young women have predetermined that their destined spouses must be named Earnest, it should be noted how Wilde named some of his comedy’s inhabitants. As I tell my students, everything is a choice. Jack is meant to denote a common fellow. Algernon translates as someone with moustaches [plural], and therefore possibly a man with an overbearing prissiness. Anyone christened Cecily loves music. Gwendolen derives from Guinevere, of the Roundtable gang. Prism seems to be sarcastically named after something that is dazzling. The good reverend’s surname comes from a vicar’s outer, sleeveless garment – someone who doesn’t have arms and can’t grasp things, perhaps? An old-fashioned aside: in “The Odd Couple,” Neil Simon named his Pigeon sisters after Wilde’s vacuous heroines.

The most apt Christian moniker of all surely is that of Lady Bracknell – Augusta. This ‘august’ personage indeed commands our laser-like attention and blind obedience. Failure to give her both, in full measure, guarantees swift and unimaginable consequences.

Consequences of historic proportions rattle around the make-believe stone steps on the set of “Colin Quinn Long Story Short,” a 75-minute humorous, and sometimes laugh-packed monologue that traces the history of civilization. Yup! Directed by Jerry Seinfeld, Quinn’s rather intelligent riff on how man screwed up big time boils it all down to ethnic idiosyncrasies, quirky behavior and the occasional buffoon in the right place at the wrong time. With a serious debt to Mort Sahl, the comic mines a couple hundred centuries of mankind’s back story through the lens of today’s social norms, or ab-norms, as the case may be. The material does seem rushed, and often, a clever quip comes off as the seed of a potentially riotous premise, only to be left on the floor instead of being nurtured into a full-grown bit.

Quinn’s act makes only fair-to-middling use of full screen projections and amusing animation, but any time comedy requires the audience to know the difference between the Middle East and the Midwest, it deserves acclaim. Broadway’s smallest house, the Helen Hayes, helps to keep the atmosphere casual. The performance ends with a stand-up routine that pretty well ties it all together, but given the fact that it’s had the entire planet’s real and mythological events to draw from, “Long Story Short” should not have taken its title so literally.

A few weeks back, word circulated that Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim have met with Barbra S. to conjure up a new screen version of “Gypsy.” Conventional wisdom among theatre folk who rate movie musicals is that the 1959 Rosalind Russell starrer, directed with Hollywood adjustments by Mervyn LeRoy, failed to capture the great show’s magic.

It’s curious that Arthur’s golden girl choice for what many called the definitive revival recently, Patti LuPone, does not seem to be in the running, despite being closer in age to Madame Rose – she’s about 50, and Miss S is coming up on 69. And it’s still a mystery why the two surviving creators of this classic musical don’t comment on the 1993 TV-movie version starring Bette Midler. One wonders how Sondheim’s score will fare when sung by the independent-minded musical genius who makes every composition her own. Ready or not, here comes Momma!

On Book

Oscar Wilde (ne Fingal O’Flahertie Wills, from Dublin) ingested the 19th-century Aesthetic movement, which advocated art for art’s sake, and rose to become its leading spokesman. He sharpened his pencils and his wits, and turned out some of the English-speaking world’s most memorable wordplay masterpieces, such as the biting satire “An Ideal Husband” for the stage, the wrenching poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” and the haunting novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Check out two collections that will give you hours of pleasure: Harper Perennial’s “The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems and Essays,” and “Wilde: The Complete Plays,” from Metheun Publishing.

TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.” He has written about theatre and the arts for The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Parade, Rolling Stone, and dozens of other publications. His award-winning play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts. He has taught theatre subjects at Columbia University Teacher’s College, HB Studio, the New School and other institutions, and now conducts small classes and private tutoring sessions. Information is available through tvellela@nyc.rr.com.

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