Behold the Irish Rep’s revival of “Ernest in Love,” a perfectly serviceable production of Oscar Wilde’s airtight comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest,” repeatedly punctured by Lee Pockriss and Anne Croswell’s regrettable songs. The quality of the performances makes the final product’s mediocrity all the more disappointing Katie Fabel, in particular, is so funny as Cecily, she makes you wish the Irish Rep would simply forget the music and remount the play.
Both shows follow the misadventures of serial prevaricator Jack Worthing (Noah Racey), a wealthy gadabout who regularly excuses himself from his duties in the country to visit his paramour Gwendolyn (Annika Boras) in the city — all on the pretense of rescuing fictional younger brother Ernest from some terrible scrape. His London friend Algernon (Ian Holcombe) has an imaginary ailing relative in the country for similar purposes.
Wilde’s goal in the original was to carefully invert the situation so that all of Jack’s lies came true; what’s amazing about the play is how rapidly the writer accomplishes this, using almost nothing but gleefully trivial witticisms.
What’s painfully bad about the 1960 musical (clearly an attempt to cash in on the success of “My Fair Lady,” which pillaged George Bernard Shaw to much better effect) is that composer Pockriss and lyricist-librettist Croswell take a totally fat-free scene such as the central reversal, in which Jack and Algernon are found out over tea, and lard it with no fewer than three songs. Wilde’s play hasn’t provided his characters with much to sing about, either, so half the songs are about muffins and hats, and the other half are embarrassingly sincere love ballads.
The latter violate the spirit of the original play in a couple of ways — first, they drop in some distractingly modern turns of phrase. But more importantly, they smother Wilde’s gentle ironies about love and marriage. This is, after all, a story about cynical people learning how to deal with love; as a musical, it becomes a story about infatuation triumphing over cynicism.
It would be easy to say “Ernest in Love” is totally misbegotten and be done with it, but that wouldn’t be true. There are moments when we can see faintly how a musical version of “Earnest” could work — mostly because it doesn’t at all seem wrong for Jack and Algernon to sing, or at least dance.
Director Charlotte Moore has smoothed over some of the transitions from spoken word to music, and choreographer Barry McNabb gives Racey a fun little tap number to open the play.
There are no complaints about the cast, with the notable exception of Holcombe, who plays Algernon with a showboating cattiness that doesn’t do a thing for the script. It’s a mistake that gets made often in modern productions of Wilde — for some reason, directors and actors read rapier wit and think flamboyant overstatement.
The women fare best. This isn’t Boras’ first time playing Gwendolen, and she does it well; Broadway vet Beth Fowler is hilariously stuck-up as Algernon’s domineering aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell.
James Morgan’s set is exactly spare and functional enough, and Linda Fisher’s costumes are fun. Shame about the songs.