Of all of theater’s enduring comedies, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest has stood the test of time remarkably well; Wilde’s wit all these hundred-plus years later is still legitimately funny and razor sharp.
But it’s a mystery why Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska, co-writers of Being Earnest, a newish musical adaptation of the great farce, thought it even a halfway decent idea to displace the story out of Victorian England and into the 1960s. Even more curious is why the Greater Boston Stage Company, where Being Earnest is now receiving its New England premiere, thought that this inconsequential musical was worth producing at all.
Wilde’s romantic comedy of mistaken identities is, for better or for worse, mostly intact, and Gordon’s book for the musical is largely verbatim, though he has done some splicing from other Wilde works. (Again, that question of why.) Gordon’s score, which he co-composed with Gruska, achieves the miraculous feat of vanishing from the mind nearly as instantly as it enters it. (This is also disappointing since Gordon is capable of much more: His stunning score for Jane Eyre is one of my favorite scores of the 2000s.)
Wilde’s Earnest is, among other things, scathing commentary on Victorian society. To that end, it isn’t clear what Gordon and Gruska thought they’d be gaining or challenging by setting the musical in 1965. But other than the music and the design elements, the social and political goings on of the 1960s are never inserted into the play, and there is no payoff or legitimacy to the concept; it would be like setting Rent in the Civil War South yet still having the characters fight AIDS and order tofu hot dogs at the Life Cafe.
Directed by Ilyse Robbins, this big ol’ wink of a production can’t be blamed for the defective adaptation, though some—forgive me—earnestness could go a long way toward grounding the musical in a bit of reality. Michael Jennings Mahoney is a smooth, charming Algernon, and Ephie Aardema plays Cecily with an admirable Anna Faris-like goofiness. Other actors struggle with the corniness of the material, which can hardly be said to be a bad thing, though it isn’t helpful here.
To borrow from Wilde, I hope I shall not offend you if I state quite frankly and openly that Being Earnest seems to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute schlock.
BEING EARNEST. THROUGH 10.7 AT GREATER BOSTON STAGE COMPANY, 395 MAIN ST., STONEHAM. GREATERBOSTONSTAGE.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.