Ernest in Love
nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
December 18, 2009
The audience was all smiles at Irish Rep's entertaining and polished production of one of theatre's most beloved comedies. Loaded with Oscar Wilde's sparkling dialogue, a simple but elegant design, and a skilled cast with razor-sharp comic timing, it's pretty much everything you could want from a solid production of The Important of Being Earnest...except it's not The Importance of Being Earnest, but its 1950s musical adaptation Ernest In Love. Wilde's madcap critique of the shallowness of Victorian society is one of the most beloved comedies in the world, which puts some undue pressure on its musical cousin. How could an adaptation of the most beloved comedy of ALL TIME manage to compete with—or at least add something new to—its source material? If you guessed that it can't, you're correct. But while Ernest in Love doesn't offer any new insights into Wilde's masterpiece, it nicely captures the spirit of the original, which for most people will be assurance enough that a good time awaits.
For the few of you unfamiliar with the story, it focuses on Ernest Worthing, a gentlemen of modest means who wishes to marry his high-society love Gwendolen. Her domineering mother Lady Bracknell won't hear of it, but Gwendolen is smitten and wants to marry him anyway, especially because "she's always wanted to marry a man named Ernest." Too bad his name isn't really Ernest...he's really Jack Worthing, who is bound to care for his 18-year-old ward Cecily in a country home. In order to escape to the city every now and then to woo Gwendolen, Jack has told Cecily of a fictitious brother he visits in the city named "Ernest," and assumes the name of Ernest when he visits Gwendolen (everybody got that?). When Gwendolen's knavish cousin Algernon catches on to the ruse, all well-mannered hell breaks loose.
It's a whole lot of frothy fun, and Irish Rep has assembled a near-perfect cast, who wield every droll wisecrack with clarity and subtlety. Noah Racey and Annika Boras are appealing and honest as Jack and Gwendolen, Ian Holcombe is a delightful cad as Algernon, and theatrical legend Beth Fowler is beyond perfect as the imposing Lady Bracknell, embodying Wilde's whole concept of societal hypocrisy in one hilarious performance. The cast is supported amply by a grand (yet minimal) theatrical world evoked by set designer James Morgan, lighting designer Brian Nason, and especially costumer Linda Fisher. Director Charlotte Moore keeps things moving briskly and confidently. And Lee Pockriss's pleasant score is played beautifully by a small chamber group of piano, two strings, and a harp.
In fact the score is so classy and tuneful, that I'm left wondering why it felt so unnecessary. Perhaps it's because the modern convention of musical theatre—in which characters sing when their emotions reach a boiling point—doesn't apply in Wilde's world, where intellect is king and emotion a frivolous afterthought. The songs in Ernest, to their credit, don't attempt to impose an emotional life on the play that—frankly—isn't there. On the other hand, Anne Croswell's lyrics are rather unambitious, never even attempting to reach the heights of Wilde's wit or irony. Wilde and his characters thrive on cleverness, and the songs—where they could provide a platform for even more heightened verbal jousting—are instead simple devices used to highlight the characters' vapidity.
No matter. Even if the songs don't do anything for the original play, at least they don't get in its way either. The music is integrated seamlessly into the action, and the performances are perfectly assured. And at two hours and 15 minutes, the predictable evening still goes down as smoothly and warm as a cup of Earl Grey.