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Wilde about Irish Rep's 'Ernest'

Having transferred its triumphant production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" to the Soho Playhouse at 15 Vandam St., NYC for an extended run, the Irish Repertory Theatre is engaging in a bit of harmless lily-gilding by reviving "Ernest in Love" for the holiday season.

The show, a little-known musical version of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," by composer Lee Pockriss and lyricist Anne Croswell, originally opened Off-Broadway in 1960, running for 103 performances.

To say that "Ernest in Love" is an exercise in gilding-the-lily is merely to indicate that Wilde's comic masterpiece contains plenty of verbal music on its own, and doesn't cry out for songs and dances.

The show, however, is enjoyable and pleasant. And, as always seems to be the case with the Irish Rep, it is well-cast and crisply, cheerfully presented. The organization's artistic director, Charlotte Moore, has approached the project with energy and insight, in this case helped by the work of choreographer Barry McNabb, who manages to keep the Rep's nine actors on their feet and dancing appealingly. Only one of Moore's actors, Noah Racey, the show's excellent Jack Worthing, is a trained Broadway dancer.

"Ernest in Love," is the comic tale of a pair of young men in Edwardian London, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack, plus the girls they love, Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew.

The enduring fondness the play has enjoyed since its debut is probably due to yet another character, the outrageous Lady Augusta Bracknell. The comedic Mayfair dowager is the self-confidant arbiter of all things social and snobbish, expert on everything as significant as which side of any fashionable London street boasts the more desirable address.

So beloved a role is Lady Bracknell that, over the course of the last couple of decades, it has attracted the attention of a number of male actors who played it in drag. Director Moore has assigned the role to a female, Beth Fowler, who plays it with grace and style, but not, perhaps, with the eccentric, unbridled comic flair previous Bracknells have brought to the role.

Ian Holcomb is a sturdy Algernon, while Annika Boras and Katie Fabel score as, respectively, Gwendolen and Cecily.

Actors Peter Maloney and Kristin Griffith have been married for thirty years, but they have never worked together until now, when they're giving standout performances as Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism.

The pair's emergence as an acting couple is one of the most memorable and appealing aspects of the Irish Rep's charming new production of "Ernest in Love," which will run through the end of January.

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