Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Rewards of Being Frank
The marriages of Cecily Cardew (Tora Nogami Alexander) and Gwendolyn Fairfax (Kelly Mengelkoch) to, respectively, Algernon Moncrieff (James Evans) and Ernest Moncrieff (Jeremy Dubin), the latter originally known as Jack Worthing, have generated offspring. Their lives remain in thrall to Gwendolyn's domineering mother, arrogant and opinionated Lady Bracknell (Christine Pedi). Cecily and Gwendolyn have decided that their young sons' educations need to be handed over to a serious professional, and he has arrived for an interview in the person of Frank Teacher (Moboluwaji Ademide Akintilo). As his given name implies, Frank is, indeed, a teacher who prizes forthright honesty above all else.
Or so it seems. While his actions do differ from the past and present dissembling of the feckless husbands, Frank proves able to weaponize his direct nature to manipulate decisions in his favor. He directly flirts with romantic Cecily and more mild-mannered Gwendolyn, who worries that Ernest's adoration has diminished. When Frank's methods are revealed, he turns his attention to Lady Bracknell, both charming her and appealing to her attraction to wealth.
Had Wilde actually written a sequel to his comedy, it seems doubtful that he would have introduced these more modern notions regarding relationships and social mores. Of course, had Wilde had lived into the 21st century, he might very well have evolved to the point of aiming his satirical barbs at more modern attitudes. Nevertheless, the overt manipulations Scovell has given several characters feel a bit disconcerting.
That does not diminish the humor the playwright has crafted in the style of Wilde. As Algernon, the antic Evans continues to be self-absorbed, frivolous and irreverent, focused on stylish attire and avoidance of employment. Dubin's portrait of Ernest has taken on more qualities of dithering and uncertainty than in the past. He continues to wear a long-tailed mourning coat, the garb he donned seven years earlier when he announced the death of his nonexistent younger brother.
As Cecily, Alexander heightens the young woman's silly, romantic nature. She has also adopted Algy's fondness for cucumber sandwiches, a running gag from start to finish in this production. Mengelkoch's Gwendolyn is full of nervous anxiety–quite natural in the shadow of her judgmental parent–but she shows an increasingly rebellious streak in dealing with her mother and her husband. As in Earnest, the women are the stronger characters and get their own way and the last laugh. As does Lady Bracknell.
Christine Pedi (known for hosting on SiriusXM's "On Broadway" channel, as well as a veteran of the long-running "Forbidden Broadway" series of satirical take-offs) delivers a note-perfect performance as the imperious Bracknell. Forced to sample a bread-and-butter sandwich rather than one of her beloved (but already consumed) cucumber sandwiches, she does a long take as if she's eating something close to poison.
Scovell has written nearly as many laugh-inducing quips for the snobbish Bracknell as Wilde stuffed into his original play. What's more, she hasn't hesitated to resurrect Bracknell's distaste for Ernest's origins, lost as an infant in a handbag in a remote train station. She grimaces every time it's mentioned. Bracknell is conservative and overbearingly proper, but Wilde also hinted that she had been a ruthless social climber, bent on marrying into the aristocracy. Scovell has picked up on that thread and used it for her sequel.
As the new character of Frank Teacher, Akintilo brings a stern demeanor to his supposed honesty, but it's colored with occasional touches of awareness that he's using it toward his desired ends. Akintilo is very tall and extremely starchy, qualities used repeatedly for comic effect.
The production has been staged by Stephen Burdman, the founding artistic director of New York Classical Theatre, an enterprising company that presents free productions of classic and forgotten masterpieces in public spaces across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Once this world premiere production concludes in Cincinnati, it will move to New York City for an Off-Broadway for a New York Classical Theatre run in March. The partnership between Burdman's company and Cincinnati Shakespeare has made it possible to bring the play to life on Cincinnati Shakespeare's attractive stage and then take the set and costumes created locally to New York City. The same casti–featuring Cincy Shakes veterans Dubin and Mengelkoch, with New York professionals Alexander, Akintilo, Evans, and Pedi–as well as backstage crew will be working together for the restaging.
Of particular note is Samantha Reno's Victorian set, a prim and proper London sitting room ready for tea, replete with Persian rugs, bookcases, and gas lamps (plus cucumber sandwiches) that converts during intermission to a sedate garden in the English countryside with wicker furniture and walls with climbing white roses. Rainy Edwards' period costumes, especially several jaunty outfits for the stylish Algernon, also put the tale in its proper context.
Wilde titled his 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. He said its theme was "that we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality." Alice Scovell's sequel, full of high farce and witty dialogue, lives up to that theme.
The Rewards of Being Frank runs through February 18, 2023, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, 1195 Elm Street, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyshakes.com or call 513-381-2773. From March 3-26 it will be presented at New York Classical Theatre at A.R.T. New York Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W. 53rd Street, New York City NY.