One definition of a masterpiece: a work that can’t be killed, one that shines triumphantly through any obstacle the misguided or the malevolent may put in its way. After Sir Peter Hall’s funereally lumbering, explanatory production, there’s no doubt that The Importance of Being Earnest is a masterpiece. Clumsy, unimaginative staging, a laborious pointing-up of jokes that needed no pointing up, a grievously mixed bag of American, English, and resident alien actors speaking in a mishmash of accents, with little humor and less dash—none of it could harm Oscar Wilde’s pinnacle-of-perfection comedy, which winds through its wickedly cheerful action and detonates its reverberant laughs just as if it were a brand-new work in the hands of master comedians. Even the seedy atmosphere of the BAM Harvey—when will they redecorate this deconstructed eyesore?—couldn’t dampen Wilde’s playful spirit.
Lynn Redgrave’s fiery but vocally constrained Lady Bracknell is the best of the lot. The Algernon is passable, the Cecily better than that, Bianca Amato’s Gwendolen quite acceptable; Miriam Margolyes’s arch Miss Prism tries so hard to steal the show that she nearly kills it instead, like a cat burglar knocking over furniture in his eagerness to get at the valuables. But Wilde’s Irish verbal gems demand a certain English reserve. Lunge at them and their sparkle disappear, leaving only the sanity of his wit to set the house roaring.