Unadorned, the pithy and pitiless words of Oscar Wilde can hold an audience enrapt and leave them wracked with laughter. Thankfully, Roundabout Theatre Company’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” leaves well enough alone — using simple sets, naturalistic blocking and period costumes to highlight the dialogue and plot. The story glides forward on its own merit, giving the actors more space to play.
John Worthing (David Furr), who utters the titular epithet, is a restrained gentleman who splits his time between a country estate where he dwells with pretty ward Cecily (Charlotte Parry), and an exciting city life where he courts would-be fiancee, Gwendolyn (Sara Topham). But Santino Fontana’s Algernon Moncrieff is the play’s funny bone; when he attempts to bring John’s fictional younger brother Ernest to life, his genuine boyish mischief adds levity.
But it’s Brian Bedford’s Lady Bracknell who continues to pull in crowds. Although Roundabout is not the first company to successfully gender-swap this role, Bedford commits an impressive feat by simultaneously directing “Earnest” and starring in it; he artfully sidesteps the temptation of camp and plays the part with perfect pitch. You can neither loathe nor laugh at the sanctimonious matriarch who singularly embodies the playwright’s unapologetic ribbing of social order.