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Roundabout’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST opens on Broadway this Thursday, January 13th at the American Airlines Theatre.


January 8, 2011




Standing Out Among the Wilde Scenery

The Crafty Touches of Desmond Heeley’s Sets Add to the Theatricality of the Upcoming ‘Importance of Being Earnest’




Wit and charm are a reliable part of Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production has something that most do not: Desmond Heeley.

Mr. Heeley, 79, has designed sets and costumes for the world’s top theater, opera and ballet venues. In New York, his work has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera and American Ballet Theatre. In England, he has been a regular at Covent Garden, the National Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as West End theaters. Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival Theater and Milan’s La Scala can claim him, too.


On Broadway, Mr. Heeley holds a rare distinction: In 1968, he became the first person to win the Tony Awards for costume and scenic design of the same show: Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” (Two others have duplicated the feat: Franne Lee for “Candide” in 1974, and Maria Bjornson for “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1988.)


Returning to New York for “Earnest,” which opens on Jan. 13, Mr. Heeley has created three sets—two interiors and one garden—that are transporting works of craftsmanship and illusion.


The play opens in bachelor Algernon Moncrieff’s London flat. Why does the gilded frame around a painting sparkle so? “It’s Christmas paper!” Mr. Heeley revealed.


The following act is set in a country garden brimming with a sort of full and frothy look. That, said the designer, is because the leaves are wire mesh painted green and white to evoke a specific look: “It’s like a rather faded late-Victorian greeting card, with decorated edges.”


But before audience members even see these details, they are greeted by a majestic, rich show curtain bearing the initials “VR” for Victoria Regina —hand-painted by Mr. Heeley. And in front of that, the stage is dotted with footlights for added effect.


Director Brian Bedford, who has worked with Mr. Heeley at least 20 times, brought the designer to emphasize the theatricality of the play. “‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is a satirical farce that can only exist on stage. It could never exist in real life,” he said. “We thought we should make that quite clear to the audience. The scenery is very obviously scenery, but being done by Desmond it is also very beautiful.”


Beautiful, obvious scenery? Mr. Heeley knows what he’s up against in New York. “Painted scenery is wholly unfashionable,” he said, relishing his outsider status.


While painted sets do exist, contemporary theater leans either to stark minimalism or hyper-realism. If not those extremes, according to freelance production manager Dave Nelson, it’s all about technology. “You’re seeing a whole new aspect of theater—like what ‘Spider-Man’ is doing—with LED screens and projections.”


Mr. Heeley’s sets may be low-tech, but they are consistent. “Once you’ve decided on the conventions, those are the rules you play by,” he said. “You have to make it look like everything belongs to that world. Even the soles of shoes are important—you need the right ‘ga-donk, ga-donk, ga-donk’ across the stage.”

That attention to detail comes to the aide of Mr. Bedford, who is also playing the role of the grand dame Lady Bracknell in this production. “My two costumes are vintage Desmond Heeley,” he said. “All you have to do is get into those things, and you are that woman. It’s tremendously helpful.”


But as with anything artistic, there are occasional mistakes here and there. Mr. Heeley recalled designing the sets and costumes for a production of George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” at American Ballet Theatre when Mikhail Baryshnikov was artistic director. “I was halfway through, and the tu-tus were too big,” he recalled.


That production has since been retired, but current ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie said Mr. Heeley’s design for “La Sylphide” is here to stay. “I would never want to change it,” he said. “The way he captured the rough-hewn noble house compared to the gossamer second act … the forest is one the best I’ve seen in ballet.”


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