Williamstown Theatre Festival: 'The Importance of Being Earnest' Tea, bullets and cucumbers

Saturday June 30, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Irish Victorian playwright and wit Oscar Wilde is rightfully credited as the playwright for "The Importance of Being Earnest" in the Williamstown Theatre Festival program and all its publicity materials but it's American writer and wit Damon Runyon who has the first and final say on the Festival's Main Stage, and not in any good or satisfying way.

Runyon, who is best known for the stories that are the basis for that grand musical, "Guys and Dolls," was an American writer and journalist who colorfully chronicled the comings and goings of New York Prohibition-era gangsters, mobsters, gamblers and touts -- a far cry from the mannered upper class Victorian England cucumber- and bread-and-butter sandwiches-munching crowd that provided Wilde with his rich material.

Intrigued by the notion that Runyon's words would sit well on the tongues of Wilde's engaging characters, Pierce has tested his theory in a production of Wilde's popular "The Importance of Being Earnest," as near perfect a comedy as you can get, that moves Wilde's play from 1895 London and its surrounding countryside to 1932 London and its surrounding countryside and converts Wilde's characters into Runyonesque American mobsters and molls

Within this construct, Wilde's Jack Worthing (Glenn Fitzgerald) and his pal, Algernon Moncrieff (Louis Cancelmi), a name that name, in this milieu, surely would be a source of embarrassment, are the new generation in this crime family. The objects of their affections, Gwendolen Fairfax (Amy Spanger) and Cecily Cardew (Helen Cespedes), are, respectively, a ditzy Marilyn Monroe-type who, during the first intermission, transforms into a streetwise doll, and an educated strong-willed young woman. The formidable Lady Bracknell (a hard-working, uncomfortable looking Tyne Daly) is the head of this crime family -- a Godmother to end all Godmothers.

Totally lost in this flying bullets dese-dem-and-dose world is Wilde's wit; his sharp, keen observations; his inspired, masterly way with the English language. A play that should sparkle with Champagne lightness of being flows, instead, like flat, stale ale. Wilde's very best lines are buried beneath the weight of a linguistic style that never for a moment lets you forget that it is there.

It's not only Wilde's gift for language that suffers. With its cumbersome, plodding rhythm and joyless, effortful performances, Pierce's production seems less a labor of love than just plain labor. It also provides cover for poor acting, with the notable exceptions of Henry Stram's sublime Rev. Canon Chasuble and Paul Anthony McGrane's butler, Merriman, who, like Stram, reminds us of everything we are missing.

There is an inspired moment in an early scene between Algernon and Jack in which it appears that Pierce's concept will take hold as Algernon attempts a high-tone British affectation but in a linguistic style that will forever mark his lower class origins. But it's like trying to strike a match in the rain; a spark that goes out the moment it flares up.

The Festival has had extraordinary luck in its last two seasons with productions that have successfully brought fresh, imaginative approaches to familiar material -- last summer's remarkable "Ten Cents a Dance" and the 2010 season's joyously inspired "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." This third time, this summer, however, is neither charm nor charming.


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