Lady Bracknell is returning to town, and she is not to be stood up. The formidable old battle-ax who chaperones Oscar Wilde's hilarious The Importance of Being Earnest (which Wilde aptly subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People) is one of the theater's most droll grandes dames, a showy benchmark role for generations of middle-aged actresses from Edith Evans to Judi Dench. Now add the cross-dressing Brian Bedford to the list of brittle Bracknells.
Over the past 30 years, Bedford has carved out a unique career as a definitive interpreter of Molière. Two summers ago, in a temporary respite from French farce, Bedford indulged himself by directing and starring in Earnest at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, where he has become a cherished fixture. Bedford turned out to be a devilishly sly director. He instructed all the younger principal players to act in a slightly affected, nineteenth-century manner. Then his Lady Bracknell swooped in and delivered an understated performance that dominated the proceedings. No longer the character who arrives late and makes pithy remarks, here Lady Bracknell was at the center of a blissful evening of theater perfection — and a play written in 1895 as a trifle again revealed its rather astonishing resilience.
Five months ago Bedford's production made a belated move to Broadway, where it was greeted with such accolades that the length of its original limited run was more than doubled. It closes on July 3 (at which point Bedford returns to Stratford to star in Molière's The Misanthrope). But if you missed this Wilde revival onstage, now you can see it onscreen. Earnest has been recorded in high-definition and will be shown at the Tivoli on consecutive Saturdays, June 4 and June 11.
Theater and film have long endured an uneasy alliance. In 1964 the John Gielgud-directed Hamlet starring Richard Burton (still the longest-running Hamlet in Broadway history) was broadcast to movie theaters from coast to coast. But that was a one-time shot. Two years ago England's National Theatre began beaming out live performances of its productions. (The next offering, later this year, will be Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.) Americans have also gotten into the act. In addition to Earnest, on June 15, 16 and 21, the New York Philharmonic's recent semi-staged concert performance of the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical Company will be screened at the Tivoli. The starry cast features Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby and the likes of Jon Cryer, Patti LuPone and Stephen Colbert — yes, Stephen Colbert! — as his friends.
Theater onscreen may be a passing fad that will run out of steam if too many shows try to go national — and if those productions do not prove "event"-worthy. On the other hand, the Metropolitan Opera has been piping out its offerings for years, with great success. But we can be grateful that this new theater trend caught on just as Bedford's Importance of Being Earnest was captivating Broadway. Theater, we know, is gone too soon, and all that remains are the memories. This enchanting Earnest was restored to life once when it moved from Canada to Broadway. Now it has been preserved for posterity. To be able to see Bedford's pleasure-filled production here in St. Louis is a gift.