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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Importance of Being Earnest
By Elyse Sommer
I've been a big fan of David Hyde Pierce as an actor both on TV (as the deliciously prissy Dr. Niles Crane on the NBC's Frasier and Stage (Spamalot and Curtains). After reading my colleague Simon Saltzman's enthusiastic review of Pierce's first directing gig, the musical It Should Have Been You at the George Street Playhouse I was eager to see his second outing at the helm at Williamstown, especially since Tyne Daly, that show's hilarious Jewish mother was also on board as Lady Bracknell.
With Earnest produced so many times that it's hard not to stifle a yawn at the idea of yet another production. Therefore you can't fault Mr. Pierce for wanting to give his version a new twist. That twist came courtesy of Damon Runyon the creator of those famous gangsterish "dem guys and dolls." As he explained to those with raised eyebrows at his idea of fast-forwarding from the Victorian era to Runyon's 1930's gangster world these Runyonesque characters could play out the romantic impediments to the guys getting their gals, without sacrificing a single of Wilde's much quoted witticisms — and that Lady Bracknell could be persuasive as the grand dame of this mob style family.
At the beginning it looks as if this conceit might work. There's a distinct touch of Runyon's gangsterish world in a scene where tomato sauce is being simmered but the guys in dark suits and sporting holsters also display a Wildean taste for cucumber sandwiches. Allen Moyer's ingenious sliding set takes us from what looks like a hangout to various rooms in the London flat of Algernon Moncrieff (a standout performance by Louis Cancelmi) where the various plot complications are established.
However, by the time Tyne Daly and her daughter Glendolyn sweep into the flat it begins to look as if Mr. Pierce's concept is going to be a case of an admirably nervy but directorial failure. Despite the top drawer cast, and Michael Krass costumes to support the applause worthiness of the production values, the marriage of Wilde and Runyon just doesn't work. Yes, the director has remained true to Wilde's script, but somehow the ever witty mots don't land with their usual sparkle. Maybe if Hyde had gone all out as he does at the begning and the end, his concept might have worked better. As it is, he has relied too heavily on sight gags to keep the Runyon conceit going — like having Lady Bracknell accompanied by a bodyguard (Shaun Lennon), poised at all times to frisk or even rub out any of his boss's enemies.
The cast overall do their utmost to make Wilde's funny play even funnier as conceived by the director. Tyne Daly does capture the tough, scheming babe within the formidable dowager as written by Wilde. The actors playing the inevitably happily engaged guys and gals are fine. But the real stars of this intriguing but ultimately wrong-headed production are the aforementioned Allen Moyers' sets, especially the sliding room-to-room opening one, and the sublime Marylouise Burke and Henry Stram as Miss Prism and Rev. Canon Chasuble. These minor but major characters have always tended to be scene stealers and Burke and Stram prove themselves to be delightful thieves whether playing their parts á la Wilde or Runyon.
In case you've never seen or read The importance of Being Earnest, here's the synopsis which, except for the scenery, costumes and above mentioned sight gags, is true to the original: In order to enjoy their bachelor lives both John Worthing and his friend Algernon Moncrieff have invented fictitious characters as alibis for the frequent absence from their homes —- from the country in John's case, and town in Algernon's. John's "alibi" is a fictitious bad-boy brother, Algernon's is a sickly pal named Bunbury. John does want to marry Algernon's cousin Gwendolyn and the crafty Algernon wants to meet his ward Cecily, which he does pretending to be Ernest. The ladies are more than happy with their suitors since both are fixated on the appeal of men named Ernest. The men hasten to oblige them by arranging to be christened. To ramp up the complications: John was a foundling, left in a handbag at Victoria Station and is thus unable to satisfy Cecily's mother's requirements for a suitable husband. However, all ends well with Miss Prism, Cecily's governess, being the key to John's true parentage and a triple happy finale.
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