"I am sick to death of cleverness," says the character Jack Worthing in Oscar Wilde's 1895 comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. "Everybody is clever nowadays. You can't go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left."
Oh, Jack. Oh, Oscar. We do not lack for fools today. Just look at Congress. And Fashion Police.
Yet we are eyeball-high with cleverness, too. It is the currency of social media (and all other media straining to remain relevant). It is delivered in odd-numbered listicles, late-night monologues and TED talks. Why be smart or serious when being clever gets retweeted? And it loves the theater. Making a sneak attack, clever stuff onstage can be refreshing. When it announces itself with bright lights and girls on trampolines, however, jump back.
Kitchen Dog Theater's latest production, Wilde/Earnest, cleverly, and somewhat foolishly, tries to one-up Oscar Wilde by updating his viciously witty satire of Victorian mores. Writer-director Lee Trull has deconstructed the original script -- three acts of wickedly funny froth that send up the lifestyles and attitudes of a couple of upper-class twits and their girlfriends -- and downsized it to 95 minutes of frantic silliness. Trull has drenched his version in an overworked awesomesauce of current pop-culture and tech-speak, placing it on Skittle-colored scenery by Rob Wilson, in costumes by Melissa Panzarello so hipster-ugly/chic they deserve their own Portland ZIP code.
Trull has tried to create a bizarro version of Wilde's world. Instead of teatime cucumber sandwiches, Jack Worthing (Max Hartman, more handsome than ever, even in tight pink pants) and snooty pal Algernon Moncrieff (giddy Matt Lyle in a swirly mustache) munch Bagel Bites and Nutter Butters. With no stuffy butler about, Algy complains that he can "barely afford to pay my intern," young Sam (Samuel Cress), who strides around with a headset and iPad, glumly taking selfies and checking Facebook.
The basic plot remains. Jack and Algy pretend to be other men, both named Ernest, to win the hearts of heiresses Gwendolen (gangly-nerdy Jenny Ledel) and Cecily (Martha Harms, KDT's resident young Mary Tyler Moore). The skunk at the picnic is stern old Mrs. Bracknell (Leah Spillman, done up like Manhattan fashion doyenne Iris Apfel), who poo-poos any suitor not rich enough for her daughter. "We didn't spend six figures on private schools and fat camps" for Gwen to marry a pauper, she says with a sniff in Trull's adaptation. Bracknell especially doesn't approve of Jack's being a foundling. "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness," she says. (That's one line Trull's retained verbatim from Wilde.)
On a pink-checkered floor, against a fuchsia wall of what could be app icons representing the garden (a tree) and the parlor (a martini glass), characters hop onto mini-trampolines and zip around on roller skates for no reason. Gwendolen and Cecily don inflatable blue "zorb" suits and crash together like sumo wrestlers. Algy courts Cecily in a plastic wading pool. Mrs. Bracknell sips a cocktail through a curly straw. Gwen updates her blog. They name-drop Central Market, Shawshank Redemption, Maroon 5, Skype, Babybjörn, Uber, West Nile and Wikipedia. How clever and unnecessary.
Sometimes they sing, but not enough to call this a musical. Composer Jencey Keeton gives Algy and Jack a boffo opening number and the girls a cute duet begging their boyfriends to come back, with choreography by Danielle Georgiou, but these feel more like time-fillers than show tunes that move the plot along.
Trull's gags work best when he sticks close to Wilde's script. When he strays too far, like changing Wilde's references to "Bunburyists" to "Baldwinists," he misses Wilde's sly plays on words. (If Trull meant to make a joke about the acting Baldwin brothers, it needs to be more Alec and less Stephen.)
The laughs in Wilde/Earnest, and there are more than a few, are supplied by the cast, well chosen by Trull. Here are actors who know how to do comedy. Lyle, who wrote KDT's best show last year, the hilarious Barbecue Apocalypse (also directed by Trull), is a skilled and charming buffoon whose presence loosens up Hartman and works right in tandem with Harms' quick timing. Along with Ledel and Spillman, they help tame some of Trull's wilder gimmicks, staying true to what Wilde intended in the first place.
Wilde/Earnest continues through April 18 at Kitchen Dog Theater, McKinney Avenue Contemporary, 3129 McKinney Ave. Tickets $15-$40 at 214-953-1055.