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Theatre in Review: The Rewards of Being Frank (New York Classical Theatre/ART NY Theatres)

Christine Pedi. Photo: Mikki Schaffner

How many actresses can slay when playing Liza Minnelli and/or Lady Bracknell? Christine Pedi long ago emerged from several editions of Forbidden Broadway as a celebrity spoofer nonpareil, especially her peerless Liza, a side career that she has pursed online. (I'm still getting over her version of Liza's 2015 Oscar picks; asked to predict the best actress winner, she scrunches up her face in astonishment and announces, "Honey! Saoirse Ronan, Saorise Ronan, Saorise Ronan!") In another era, she would be hosting her own comedy-variety hour on network television.

As her current gig playing Lady Bracknell demonstrates, Pedi's sketch-comedy skills are equally applicable to the purposes of high comedy. A relatively petite presence, she nevertheless dominates the stage as Oscar Wilde's famous dragon lady, offering false compliments and dubious maxims with unimpeachable authority. "I love what you have not done with the place," she consoles a wife who can't afford to redecorate. Discussing the education of the young, she notes, serenely, "We want them to have lots of informational breadth, but absolutely no depth."

In the heat of conversational battle, it's simply no contest. Offering her musings on the state of marriage, she says, "Vows are binding. Trust is mandatory. But those are abstract ideals. In practice, people take lovers. Even in the finest houses." "But I grew up in one of the finest houses," nervously ventures her daughter Gwendolen. "Draw your own conclusions," she replies, crisply driving a stake into accepted morality. Pedi nibbles on each of these bits, and many more, with the relish that Lady Bracknell usually reserves for an especially delicious cucumber. Somebody ought to cast her in The Importance of Being Earnest, and soon.

At the moment, however, she is appearing in The Rewards of Being Frank, Alice Scovell's sequel to Earnest, which is a much different proposition and not an especially happy one. Given its peerless construction and wit, Wilde's masterpiece can fairly be classified as an unrepeatable success. It also ends on a definitive note, leaving a presumptuous playwright with little or nothing on which to build a continuation. Indeed, Scovell's try-anything approach often violates the spirit of the original while providing little in the way of new invention.

In Scovell's plot, Algernon and Earnest are married to Cecily and Gwendolen, but, at the least on the part of the ladies, the seven-year itch is setting in. This becomes evident during an interview with Frank Teacher, a prospective tutor for their boys. Teacher, a self-invented, compulsively honest sort, privately declares his passion for both Cecily and Gwendolen. Enchanted, they spirit him off to the country for a weekend of flirtation. Algernon and Jack, who have been painting the town, discover their wives have fled and decide to follow them. What happens next is a tiresome series of plot reversals involving an unexpected romance, letters filled with life-altering revelations, and a practical solution to Cecily's desire for another child -- a challenge since Algernon shows a distinct lack of interest in heterosexual intercourse.

The trouble is so basic that one is forced to state the obvious: Wilde had something to say, using his sly, subversive wit to comment on the triviality and insularity of the British upper classes. Scovell, by contrast, is a literary ventriloquist, imitating the sound of Wilde's voice while missing his meaning. The men have the worst of it, behaving so childishly -- for example, in an endless tussle over possession of a brandy decanter and some biscuits -- that one wants to send them to bed without their dinner. Trying to avoid getting actual jobs, they announce that they have made "a rock-solid investment" in boulders, detailing a plan that amounts to the Edwardian edition of Pet Rocks. Algernon recalls attending the theatre, to see "a revived piece by that Oscar Wilde fellow. Delightful bit of fluff. Lots of laughs, but not much enlightenment." Such self-reflexive gags are never a good sign.

It's telling that Scovell's lines sound so much better when Pedi delivers them; this is also true of Moboluwaji Ademide Akintilo as Frank, who often directly engages the audience with amusingly stagey gestures, as if addressing a crowd in Hyde Park. He's a fraud posing as a truth-teller and his lightly satiric approach is perfect for the material. Otherwise, director Stephen Burdman, who has so often demonstrated his solid grasp of Shakespeare, allows everyone to archly overplay; lines that might amuse when thrown away are emphasized to a painful degree. Scovell's script would most likely wear itself out long before it ends, but this company isn't serving it well.

The production is charmingly designed, especially Samantha Reno's set, which neatly converts from a London drawing room to a country house garden, aided by Justin N. Locke's sunny lighting. If Rainy Edwards' costumes flatter the men more than the ladies, they are, overall, unusually elaborate for this company. Alex Brock's sound design amusingly brackets the action with selections from Gilbert and Sullivan.

The Rewards of Being Frank has the main problems of so many sequels: Why does it exist? What did Wilde leave unsaid that needs further explication? How can one hope to approximate his singular wit? But Pedi is a delight, even when forced to contend with a revelation about Lady Bracknell that makes a hash of the character as we have always known her. One can suddenly imagine the actress in any number of high comedy roles. Bring them on! --David Barbour

(10 March 2023)

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