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Fern Siegel

Fern Siegel

Posted: January 22, 2011 05:55 PM

Oscar Wilde's ability to skewer societal hypocrisies is masterful -- and his 1895 farce The Importance of Being Earnest is a pitch-perfect send-up of Victorian pseudo-morality and the embodiment of fin de siècle British dandyism.

Renown for his wit, Wilde's three-act comedy at the American Airlines Theater revolves around mistaken identities, upper-class snobbery and dubious pedigrees. Two London gentlemen -- Jack Worthing (David Furr) and Algy Moncrieff (Santino Fontana) -- are in hot pursuit of two women, Gwendolen (Sara Topham) and Cecily (Charlotte Parry), who long to marry a man called Earnest.

There are several obstacles to their respective unions. Worthing is deemed unworthy by Gwendolen's mother, the daunting Lady Bracknell, played to the hilt by Brian Bedford, who also directs. She can inspire fear by arching an eyebrow or the inflection of a single word, such as "handbag." An orphan reared by a kindly guardian, Worthing cannot produce lineage, at which Lady Bracknell bristles. More hilarity ensues when she grills him over marital suitability. Does he smoke? He does. Delighted, she remarks: "A man should always have an occupation of some kind."

Meantime, Algy has decided to secretly woo Worthing's ward Cecily -- and adopts another identity: Worthing's dissolute (and pretend brother). He strikes gold, but as Cecily's guardian, Jack will not countenance the marriage -- unless Lady Bracknell relents. In Wilde's clever hands, a successful resolution depends on a sly infusion of truth, and the understanding that principles can always be suborned to profit; or as Algy notes: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple."

Happily, the Roundabout Theater cast, led by an imposing Bedford, doesn't miss a beat. Topham smartly captures Gwendolen's ardor and aristocratic assurance, Parry skillfully mines Cecily's love of drama, while Fontana and Furr parry with ease. The supporting players, Dana Ivey as Miss Prism, Cecily's tutor, and Paxton Whitehead as Rev. Chasuble, hit the right note. All are served by surefooted direction, Desmond Heeley's stunning sets and costumes and Wilde's dialogue, which dazzles.