By LINDA BUCHWALD
Welcome to Building Character, TDF STAGES´ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.
When you think of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, 70s sitcoms may not immediately come to mind, but David Furr, starring as Jack Worthing in the Roundabout's current Broadway revival, says his attraction to the play is partly based on classic TV comedy.
"This is going to sound really silly, but aside from the language, which is fantastic, I grew up watching Three’s Company and [Earnest] is somewhere between Three’s Company and things like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin," he says.
On closer inspection, it's not such a far-fetched idea. After all, in Three's Company, Jack Tripper pretends to be gay so he can live in a house with two women. In Wilde's play, Jack Worthing pretends to be named Earnest when he visits London, so he can cavort around town without ruining his reputation back home.
"I love the idea of Jack [Worthing] creating this secret and then the farce of trying to manage that secret," says Furr.
To communicate Jack's predicament, Furr has to master Wilde's language. The script bursts with famous epigrams, and the humor often comes from how the actors interpret them. "You have to be sure that the character is very serious about what they’re saying, because if the character or actor knows they’re being funny, it’s just not as funny." Furr says. "It can just really kill the joke."
Director Brian Bedford let the actors find their own way through their lines. For Furr, that meant carefully shading his voice for certain scenes, such as when Jack gets frustrated. "The other thing is just figuring out what your character is doing with each line because there’s a trap with this play where people can be witty for witty’s sake, and I think that’s death for this play," he says. "You have to be doing something with that line, trying to make a change in somebody and communicating to somebody, trying to make sure you are pursuing an intention with your lines and not just being a clever actor. People will see through that quite readily."
Plus, if Furr ever lapses into cleverness, his director will know. Bedford also portrays Lady Bracknell, the mother of the woman Jack intends to marry. “It’s a novel thing to have your acting partner also be your director,” Furr says. “He’s always around, which can be either a benefit or not depending on your specific outlook.”
Joking aside, Furr was impressed with how Bedford balanced his two roles. Bedford’s understudy, Sandra Shipley, rehearsed with the cast while he was directing, and sometimes he would step in to run through his scenes.
But Furr also found that playing opposite a director can have unexpected consequences. “Lady Bracknell is always so disapproving of my character that for a while, I wasn’t sure if it was the director who was disapproving or whether it was the character," he says. "But we’d run through it, and he’d say, ‘Oh, that went quite well,’ and then I thought, ‘OK. It’s just the character.’”
Just as believable as Bedford’s disapproval is the rapport between Furr and Santino Fontana, who plays Jack’s frenemy Algernon Moncrieff. The two had never met before they happened to be matched up together at callbacks, but their chemistry was so natural that Bedford asked if they were friends. Fontana and Furr were also two of the only people in the cast that had never been in a production of the play before. “We bonded in terms of tackling these characters together for the first time,” Furr says. “And we share a dressing room, which I think was helpful through previews to kind of continue the conversation of what are we doing in terms of the characters.”
Linda Buchwald blogs for StageGrade and her own blog, Pataphysical Science. Follow her on Twitter: @PataphysicalSci