There are four dangers in writing a sequel to a comic masterpiece which will inevitably be compared to the original. First is the new author inspired enough to create a follow up? If the author just lifts the characters and structure, will it not look like a simple rewrite job? Can the wit and humor be reproduced so many years later? And finally is a sequel really needed that can add anything to the achievement of the original? Alice Scovell’s The Rewards of Being Frank, a sequel to Oscar Wilde’s immortal Edwardian comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, fails on all four levels.
While playwright Scovell has a facility for language, she does not have the wit to mimic Wilde’s classic one-liners. Instead, she borrows expressions from the play and attempts to imitate the format of his humor. Lines like “It is imperative to be an attentive hostess, but never forgot that you are your most important guest” and “I’m glad to hear that your fervor for the truth is tempered by your humanity” pass for witticisms. Much time is spent on whether a wedding was “elegantly extravagant” or “extravagantly elegant.” The opening scene of the first act (and the end of the second act) is devoted to a discussion of cucumber sandwiches, which Wilde did justice to in his play and as such this comes as no surprise to an audience versed in the earlier work.
Director Stephen Burdman, founding artistic director of New York Classical Theatre, has done the play no favors by staging it in an artificial style which only exaggerates its limitations. As Lady Bracknell, Christine Pedi, our greatest voice impressionist, is not only given little to do, much of her dialogue is uncharacteristic of the character created by Wilde. Worse still, the ending which involves her character is completely unbelievable. However, the design team has performed an excellent job with the two sets for the story (Samantha Reno) and the period costumes of Rainy Edwards, although for characters this wealthy, one would have expected them to change their outfits for the second act which takes place on a different day.
Like The Importance of Being Earnest, the new play takes place first in Algernon’s London flat and then at Ernest’s The Manor House, Woolton. Gwendolen and Cecily have now been married to Ernest and Algernon, respectively, seven years. They are now interviewing tutors for their six-year-old sons Abel and Will. They are expecting Frank Teacher, “the third best tutor from the third best agency” as “a little bit of learning goes a long way.” Frank turns out to be a Cockney young man who always tells the truth. However, we discover almost immediately that he is not above making love to both women alternately.
In a case of the seven year itch, their husbands are nowhere to be seen so the three women decide to introduce the prospective tutor to their sons who are staying in the country and all four make the trip later that evening on the eight PM train. When the men return from their outing pleased not to be challenged for their tardiness, they decide to follow their wives to The Manor House for the weekend the next morning. Unfortunately, the men have made poor investments and decide that they cannot afford to hire a tutor. However, a series of strange and unforeseen events bring the play to a happy if unexpected conclusion.
Considering how snobbish and arrogant Edwardian society was as depicted in The Importance of Being Earnest, it is not credible that the Moncrieffs would consider a Cockney tutor for their sons and heirs, and the third best one at that. Not only are the cast of Tora Nogami Alexander (Cecily), Kelly Mengelkoch (Gwendolen), James Evans (Algernon) and Jeremy Dubin (Ernest) allowed to play their parts as affected and self-conscious, the play makes them much sillier and more childish than their counterparts in Wilde. As written, Moboluwaji Ademide Akintilo’s Frank seems to be from another play entirely, though he makes the most of his opportunities. The roles of the butlers Lane and Merriman are mentioned but never appear.
While Stephen Burdman’s direction keeps the play moving swiftly along, the mannered acting and forced dialogue only draws attention to itself. None of the play’s new inventions rival that of Oscar Wilde’s original. Too many of the events of the play are watered-down versions of cleverer things in Earnest. The Rewards of Being Frank is an interesting attempt to write a sequel whose results do not justify the effort in bringing it to the stage.
The Rewards of Being Frank (through March 26, 2023)
Available for streaming through March 26, 2023: http://www.ci.ovation.tix.com/35099/store/donations/49755
New York Classical Theatre
Produced in partnership with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 W. 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.nyclassical.org/frank
Running time: two hours including one intermission