The Rewards of Being Frank

Alice Scovell
New York Classical Theatre and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
ART/New York Theatres

Christine Pedi and Mobolaji Ademide Akintilo Credit: Mikki Schaffner
Tora Nogami Alexander, Christine Pedi and Kelly Mengelkoch Credit: Mikki Schaffner
Jeremy Dubin, Kelly Mengelkoch, James Evans, Tora Nogami Alexander, Christine Pedi and Mobolaji Ademide Akintilo Credit: Mikki Schaffner

The Importance of Being Earnest has delighted audiences for almost 130 years. Therefore, one wonders why nobody has previously sought to write a sequel. After all, there is a ready-made audience and a series of beloved characters waiting to be mined for laughs.

That has changed thanks to Alice Scovell and the producers at New York Classical Theatre and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.

The Rewards of Being Frank is an unrepentant pastiche of Oscar Wilde’s style, even borrowing many plot themes from the original, not to mention most of the characters, though sadly no Miss Prism or Canon Chasuble. While much of the ethos remains in period, writing in 21st century, Ms Scovell feels obliged to introduce a feminist twist, while Algernon’s campness is overt to the point where it cannot be wholly unintentional.

Seven years after machinations with an unforgettable handbag, the loving couples have married, are next-door neighbours and continue to behave as they always did, parenthood having done little to engender maturity. While there are still cucumber sandwiches in the drawing room (attractively designed by Samantha Reno and complemented by Rainy Edwards’s colourful costumes), now it is Tora Nogami Alexander as Cecily who scoffs them, rather to the amusement of her best friend Gwendolyn played by Kelly Mengelkoch but infuriating Christine Pedi’s Lady Bracknell.

It doesn’t take long to establish that director Stephen Burdman has asked his cast to act in a highly expressive, cod Victorian style, Ms Alexander often waving her arms like a windmill.

The conventional Wildean plot is subverted thanks to the arrival of a prospective new tutor for the women's pair of six-year-olds. Moboluwaji Ademide Akintilo is both handsome and overbearing as Frank, instantly charming and ready to seduce each of the women before facing a catechism from Lady Bracknell that inevitably reveals many skeletons if no handbag.

The second act introduces Algie and Ernest, respectively James Evans and Jeremy Dubin, dim in a way that only the leisured rich can be but eager to follow their wives down to the country. There, all kinds of shenanigans take place as Frank establishes himself, the younger women joust verbally but Lady Bracknell proves less of a stick in the mud than she had before the marriages.

Voice / speech coach Sarah Summerwell deserves considerable praise, since the largely posh English accents throughout are exceptionally reliable. Christine Pedi steals every scene in which she appears, while Moboluwaji Ademide Akintilo with his estuarine London accent (think Michael Caine) also catches the eye on a regular basis.

All builds to the kind of unlikely finale that Oscar Wilde might have created at the end of a two-hour evening that is gently amusing and will please, without ever quite hitting the heights achieved by of the greatest playwrights of the 19th century at his peak.

Pleasingly for those of us who cannot get to New York, this production is available online, for a donation of $10 or more, courtesy of the companies and American Equity, but only for a very limited period.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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