WTF’s Gangsta The Importance of Being Earnest

David Hyde Pierce’s Direction is Wilde

By: - Jun 29, 2012


The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde
Directed by David Hyde Pierce
Scenic Design, Allen Moyer; Costume Design, Michael Krauss; Lighting Design, Ben Stanton; Sound Design, Jill BC Du Boff; Wig Design, Paul Huntley; Fight Director, Thomas Schall; Dialect Coach, Stephen Gabis; Production Stage Manager, Eileen Ryan Kelly; Production Manager, Eric Nottke; Casting, Calleri Casting.
Cast: Sean Cullen (Lane), Julian Cihi (Feet Samuels), William Berger-Bailey (Harry the Horse), TJ Sclafani (Big Julie), Louis Cancelmi (Algeron), Glenn Fitzgerald (John Worthing), Charlotte Bydwell (Handmaid), Shaun Lennon (Butch), Tyne Daly (Lady Bracknell), Amy Spranger (Gwendolen), Marylouise Burke (Miss Prism), Helen Cespedes (Cecily Cardew), Henry Stram (Rev. Canon Chasuble), Paul Anthony McGrane (Merriman), Ariana Seigel (Handmaid)
The Williamstown Theatre Festival
Main Stage
June 26 to July 14

Probably you are familiar with the witty and wordy Oscar Wilde masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest.

It was first performed on 14 February 1895 at St. James's Theatre in London and has had numerous productions ever since. It endures as a paradigm of all things absurdly and excessively, nonsensically British. Actually, Wilde was Irish.

Perhaps with a bit of jaded ennui at the prospect of seeing yet another production of Earnest, the response is been there, done that.

Haven’t they tried everything by now including casting a male actor to play an audaciously arch Lady Bracknell?

Well. Think again.

In only his second outing as a director, the multiple Emmy and Tony Award winning actor David Hyde Pierce has delivered a delightfully hilarious, sumptuous production with a stunning cast by resetting the key characters as New York gangsters on the lam in Great Britain.

It mostly works by having that oh so sophisticated Wilde text conflated with an ersatz Guys and Dolls. While this is the most plain speech and accessible production of the play ever mounted, the intricacy of the dialogue and its verbal convolutions often trump the attempt at a Damon Runyan inspired delivery.

While Pierce has taken a bold step in an amusing, reconfiguring direction, he did not push quite hard enough. Tyne Daly is simply marvelous as Lady Bracknell with the right balance between déclassé and hauteur, but Pierce might have gone all in casting Joisey mobstah, James Gandolfini, as the grand dame.

Often it seemed that the uniformly upbeat and skilled cast dropped the occasional stitch as they knitted up the raveled sleeve of a class and culture clash. This was a conflict between low life Americana and its Gatsby-like, nouveau riche thugs with upscale pretenses social climbing across the pond.

During the opening scene, in brilliant sets by Allen Moyer, a forte of WTF, Pierce seems to have borrowed a scene from The Godfather. The Gentleman’s Gentleman Lane (Sean Cullen) of Algeron Moncrieff (Louis Cancelmi) is at the stove making tomato sauce. There is a moment of hesitation as he pours in a bit of red wine from a half full jug. Then, garnering a laugh, empties it into the pot.

Kick me if I’m wrong but wasn’t that Peter Clemenza making the ‘gravy’ in the kitchen of the Corleone estate for thugs assembled for a gang war? An army marches on its stomach.

There are a few hoods in the kitchen. But they fly out the door when Algeron asks about the progress of the cucumber sandwiches to be prepared for the visit of his aunt Lady Bracknell. The very mention of her name scares the willies out of the hitmen.

It was the era when wealthy American socialites married their daughters to impoverished European aristocracy. Edith Wharton wrote about it in her novel The Buccaneers. It was unfinished at the time of her death in 1937, and published in that form in 1938.

This production is set in the 1930s creating some inconsistencies in the costumes by Krass. The designs for Lady Bracknell are outrageous with a gonzo hat and lots of dead animals festooning her neck. Daly’s thin, shapely legs were shown to advantage. The leading men looked about right in double breasted, white summer suits. But there was a mismatch between the city mouse, Gwendolen, and country mouse, Cecily. The notion is that Gwendolen is fashionable while the innocent, virginal Cecily is not. For openers the hem lines didn’t match. Oddly, Gwendolen’s, in a rather unflattering outfit, was longer. While Cecily, in white of course, was excessively plain. Which Lady Bracknell notes with an eye toward improvement. With a bit of this and that, she will, with time, be quite presentable.

While Lady Bracknell insists on a proper marriage for her daughter Gwendolen (Amy Spanger) she is herself of humble origin. We are reminded of this by her bodyguard who is always pulling a piece on any perceived threat and humorously frisking everyone who comes in contact with her. Including, rather improbably, the oh so country village, bald, and dottering minister Rev. Canon Chausuble, nicely played by Henry Stram.

During the first act, Moyer's set slides along in three narrow vignettes; from kitchen, to picture lined study, then living room in Algeron’s London flat. The production values at WTF are, as always, just incredible from lighting, Ben Stanton, to sound by Jill BC Du Boff.

Until the arrival of Lady Bracknell at the end of act one (she reappears in act three) it’s a bit of a slog with a lot of convoluted plot exposition. It seems that Algeron and his pal John Worthing (Glenn Fitzgerald) have invented other personas that they must attend to. It’s a device to get them out of boring social obligations and the chance to switch from city to country. Of course these invented characters, and the challenge of keeping their stories straight, is rife with comic consequences.

For John, or is it Earnest, it is love at first sight for Gwendolen under the watchful eye of  Lady Bracknell. The passion is reciprocated with the caveat that she could only possibly love a man named Earnest. Certainly not any old John however handsome.

Algeron has a similar conundrum in his pursuit of John’s ward, the deliciously lovely Cecily (Helen Cespedes). We encounter her during the second act in the garden of the Manor House, Woolton. There she is in the midst of a German lesson with her tutor and guardian Miss Prism the ditsy, audience delighting Marylouise Burke.

In high society there is the matter of lineage. Or, as the Lady of the Manor grilled me during a Kit Day party in Bermuda decades ago “Who are your people?” Her then pregnant daughter-in-law, who listened intently, chimed in “Oh, you’re my second cousin from the Nugents of Rockport.”

Since John insists that he is engaged to Gwendolen, there is the all important matter of the family tree. About which he knows nothing other than that he was found as an infant in a woman’s hand bag (which he still has) in the cloak room of Victoria Station in London. He was adopted by a well-heeled gentleman and is now the protector of his ward Cecily who is pursued by his cad of a friend Algeron.

While apparently a man of some means Lady Bracknell is opposed to a match between her daughter and luggage.

Act one, with all its exposition, is a bit sluggish. The pace accelerates in act two catapulting on to an “explosive” surprise ending in act three. In the final act there is another stunning set displaying the green latticed Morning Room of the Manor House.

There is wonderful chemistry in act two between Cecily and her tutor. Burke does so much with the part of Miss Prism that she steals the show. Her every nuance is just hilarious to the audience. It is a combination of her great skill as well as Pierce’s deft direction. There are a lot of comical sight gags and riffs that are not a part of Wilde’s script.

The dynamic arc between the ladies Gwendolen and Cecily in pursuit of perfect husbands named Earnest is beautifully directed. They start as instant best friends, then morph quickly into arch enemies.  When they learn that their suitors are not what they seem the girls unite as allies. This sends the men into orbit trying to put a lid on circumstances that have spun out of control.

The mystery resolving encounter between Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances years prior, is flawless. It was a pure delight to see two great artists- Daly and Burke- work together.

By the end of the play, Wilde untangled all the knots underscored by a final statement of  The Importance of Being Earnest.

For this production, which launches the Main Stage WTF season, there is megawatt star power, a stunning production, fabulous cast and, fun, fun, fun till Daddy takes the T-Bird away. Don’t miss this boffo bonanza.