The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Directed by David Hyde Pierce.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I have likedchu since I metchu."
Dialect in dialogue makes such a difference. The upperclass British sense in Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy, "The Importance of Being Earnest," sounds different when read aloud by a company of American actors who aren’t acting the play. The formality of the British Island dialect sounds remarkably like the dialect of the New Yawk Island of Manhattan in the 1930s as defined in the stories of Damon Runyan, exemplified by the thugs of "Guys and Dolls." The often quaint flirtatiousness of Gwendolyn Fairfax’s lines, for instance, become the typical Miss Adelaide remarks, off-hand and equally quaint and the lines you think you know turn into something quite startlingly new. This is what director David Hyde Pierce has discovered and it has guided him into a double-foreign country: call it Great Runyonland.
On stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival Pierce’s new interpretation of this English theatrical icon is holding center stage in a production that is as funny as any I have ever seen. A fine group of actors, led by the devastatingly beautiful Tyne Daly as Lady Bracknell, are showing off this wonderful new concept, a gem shining brighter than might have been expected. Among the company are some surprises. For instance the odd Miss Prism, a teacher and the author of an unpublished three-volume novel, is stealing center stage in the person of Marylouise Burke. Her non-stop body language threatens at times to overtake the spoken word and her voice, sandpaper smoothing mud, lightens the moments when she speaks. Her slow crossover to meet Bracknell is a pure delight, one that could easily have been extended to heighten her unnerving.
Sean Cullen as Lane, the manservant of Algernon Moncrieff, nearly steals the scenes he is in during the first act and left this critic wishing that Wilde had managed to write him into the two acts that follow. He cooks spaghetti sauce, plays the piano, attracts and assaults the chambermaid, and still manages to do what Wilde asks of him, including saving the reputation of the man he serves when there are no cucumbers, "even for ready money." Cullen, like his colleagues, is quite miraculous in his role.
Pierce’s concept, that Lady Bracknell has married a British Lord after "making her lettuce" in America within mob maneuvers, is unique. That all the characters in this version, with the exception of the delicious Dr. Chasuble played to a tee by Henry Stram, are Americans living in London is a bit hard to take. Gwendolyn, Bracknell’s daughter played with a familiar nightclub grace by Amy Spanger, has an English father and has grown up in Britain, but her accent is quintessential New Yawkese. John Worthing, in the person of Glenn Fitzgerald, has likewise been transplanted from Victoria Station to middle America and back again to take care of his adoptive father’s orphaned granddaughter Cecily Cardew, another American of sorts who most likely grew up in suburban England.
These are inconsistencies that confuse for a moment or two, but then you accept them for no good reason and go on with the play. Helen Cespedes as Cecily is a charmer and a delight. Louis Cancelmi as Algernon, her swain, is both handsome and desirable as Cespedes proves in Act Three.
And then there is Tyne Daly. No one is better at the sidelong glance, the head bob, the body twitch. Her Lady Bracknell is certainly one of the most curious performances of this role ever conceived and she is as funny as any of her predecessors. She also brings an element of passion that is unusual and completely American. Her interrogation of Mr. Worthing is almost as threatening as her manservant’s presence tends to be, especially as portrayed by Shaun Lennon (not the singer, by the way). Daly wears period costumes with authority and the period here is 1932. Her vocal attack on classic lines is her own with no allegiance to the more famous interpretation of Dame Edith Evans who set the standard for most actresses who followed her in the role. Daly is unique. She brings to mind the character of "The Fly" in Kurt Weill and Dorothy Lane (read Bertolt Brecht)’s "Happy End." As the manipulative grand dame of American crime she is so off-hand and yet so specific that it is clear the actress is playing multiple levels of character, all at the same time. This is an award-winning performance in an arena that gives no awards, so applause, accolades, and more of the same for binding this production into a seamless, consistent entity.
David Hyde Pierce has done so much more than conceive of a new take on an old comedy. He has managed to direct an extremely well-finessed set of performances with nuances and shades that aren’t anticipated. An unidentified gardener removes items as needed and adds a different level of humor to the piece. Damon Runyan characters, named as such and almost identifiable, react to a threat in high-tail fashion. A bodyguard takes his job seriously and never interferes with the sophisticated dialogue that is emerging with less sophistication and more Warner Brothers style. Pierce’s combination of images makes so much sense and yet becomes so revelatory at unanticipated moments.
It is that very important lack of anticipation that makes this all work so well. Cast and director never give us quite what we expect. Instead we are compelled to look another way and find a new meaning in an old line. The jokes, without a dialogue rewrite, work as well as ever and sometimes better because they seem to be coming out of characters instead of out of a known-to-be witty writer.
Physically this is a beautiful production, money well spent on the sumptuous and surprising sets designed by Allen Moyer, the period-light costumes by Michael Krass who has ignored the hemlines of 1932 and plopped his women down in 1938 and the fine lighting designed by Ben Stanton. Jill BC Du Boff has likewise ignored the year of this version in her sound design but has still come up with music and sound effects that are fun and somehow just right for Pierce’s vision.
I am not a great lover of the "mob-hit" assault on a classic but in this case, and in spite of my fears and trepidation, the attack has been worthwhile and the outcome one of the best productions of recent memory. The only thing that could have made this a better evening would have been Oscar Wilde sitting in a stage box cheering, which I think he might have been doing.
Glenn Fitzgerald and Lous Cancelmi;photo supplied
Tyne Daly as Lady Bracknell; photo supplied
Amy Spangler and Helen Cespedes; photo supplied
The Importance of Being Earnest plays on the Main Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through July 14. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400.