No matter how well you think you know “The Importance of Being Earnest,” the century-old Oscar Wilde comedy whose influence lingers on today in such contemporary works as Mark Ravenhill’s “Handbag,” chances are you’ve never encountered a Lady Bracknell quite like Patricia Routledge. Over time, the role has become a bit of a poisoned chalice, not least because of the forbidding shadow cast by Edith Evans in the 1952 film. How will a performer deal with Lady B.’s first act exclamation, “a handbag”? (Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s method several years back was merely to mouth the word.) More importantly, what’s left to be discovered about as celebrated a comic gorgon as the English-language theater possesses?
Unusually, the part is at once formidable and overfamiliar, and more than one terrific actress has stumbled at its feet. Not this time. While the production surrounding her at first seems as four-square and old-fashioned as the applause that greets Routledge’s entrance, this is one star too canny to settle for a recycled take on the part. From her first appearance, she’s a galleon in full, slow sail: a shrewd arbiter of society’s byways who has left her own decisive imprint and will employ every bon mot within reach to see that daughter Gwendolyn (Saskia Wickham) does, too.
It’s not just nephew Algernon’s (a rather louche Alan Cox, son of actor Brian) passing use of the adjective “Wagnerian” that makes this Aunt Augusta look as if she had stepped out of some “Ring” cycle performed by English arrivistes. A veteran of such diverse musicals as “The Pirates of Penzance” and the Nicholas Hytner “Carousel,” Routledge doesn’t so much speak the part as musically intone it, her voice breaking into a melodic quaver that will brook no opposition. (Remarking “in the carriage, Gwendolyn,” she leaves no doubt as to where her daughter better direct herself — and fast.)
Nor does Routledge lose sight of the often-overlooked fact that Lady Bracknell wasn’t to the manner (or manor) born, but, instead, married into wealth. This is a woman wedded literally to status and prestige, her social ascent fueled by determination and a fastidious decorum that are her bequest to Gwendolyn.
It makes sense, then, that Wickham’s Gwendolyn, for her part, is incipiently imperious: Her brisk, clipped tones define her as a (prettier) chip off the old block who may one day give the lovesick Jack Worthing (Adam Godley) real cause to escape into the country for some “Bunburying” fun.
In her great teatime sparring match with the young ward Cecily (a twinkly-voiced Rebecca Johnson), Wickham’s Gwendolyn displays a verbal parry-and-thrust to make mom proud. “I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade,” says Gwendolyn coolly, her smile suddenly freezing up. Just as Lady Bracknell can make a reference to “a remote corner of Bayswater” seem both ominous and lewd, so, too, is her daughter a fledgling comic “monster” (Jack’s word) who may one day — like her mother — graduate to the position of myth.
Wickham and Routledge are matched in the acting honors by the distinctively sweet-natured Jack portrayed by Godley, who is rapidly becoming one of his generation’s leading light comedians. (The actor was an Olivier nominee earlier this year for his poignantly bowel-plagued Kenneth Williams in Terry Johnson’s “Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle, and Dick.”) Godley uses his elongated frame to droll effect, raising a long and knowing finger as Sheila Reid’s rather prim Miss Prism embarks upon the chain of confessionals that leads to the play’s harmonious conclusion. (Neither Reid nor Jonathan Cecil’s Canon Chasuble makes much of the oldest of the three couples in a play that leaves only Lady Bracknell out of the fold of twosomes.)
Peter Rice’s functional set and several of the performances may leave the mistaken impression that this is a pro forma “Earnest” of no particular distinction. But when Godley’s Jack discovers at the end that his elaborately contrived fiction is actually fact — that he really is Earnest — he ups even Routledge’s ante by reminding us that this most elegantly epigrammatic of comedies also has a heart.