What do directors see in fast-paced comedies? Risk, they say, recognition and res toration. This summer, Berk shire theaters will offer a round of rip-roaring comedies -- with solid, human cores.
Guys and Dolls, meet Oscar Wilde. When "The Impor tance of Being Earnest" comes to Wil liamstown The atre Festival this summer, directed by award-winning comedy actor David Hyde Pierce -- Fras ier's Niles Crane -- it is set in a Prohibition-era London populated by transplanted Amer ican gangsters.
"The way these characters use language is almost identical to the way Damon Runyon's underworld characters use language," Pierce explained by phone. Runyon's comic stories inspired Frank Loesser's "Guys and Dolls," the Broadway musical.
Pierce applauded WTF head Jenny Gersten for supporting "what may be a very silly idea."
As the choice of words is startlingly similar between these two very different cultures, Pierce said, he won't need to change a line of the original play -- so don't expect ‘a handbag' to become ‘a poice.'
Mirroring his own acting style, Pierce sees action rather than words as the key to humor.
"This is a play that balances on a tightrope of comedy and style," he said. "We all love to laugh. There's something very healing and restorative about it."
From his directing debut last fall of his husband's musical play "It Shoulda Been You" with Tyne Daly, Pierce said he learned to cast well.
"We have a wonderful cast in this production, so essentially I think I can just go up to Williamstown and drink," he quipped.
In 1980, Pierce was invited to the festival by his Yale professor, longtime WTF Artistic Director Nikos Psachar o pou los, and he returns on occasion to perform in the cabaret.
"Williamstown feels like home to me," he said. His family members include many Williams College alums.
"That's something I love about Williamstown," he said. "It's a place with very high standards and a willingness to take risks."
Barrington Stage Company
Take a case of mistaken identities, add a quartet of vicars, misuse a bottle of cooking sherry, and the result is a quintessential English farce.
When Philip King's 1945 comedy "See How They Run" hits the stage at Barrington Stage Company, there won't be a dry eye in the house -- from tears of laughter, that is. In a recent phone conversation, Artistic Director Juli anne Boyd called it one of the funniest farces she's ever read -- "just hilarious."
"People want to be entertained when they go to the theater," she said. "They want to laugh."
Set in a village vicarage, the play spins through plenty of door slamming and knock-'em-down slapstick.
Veteran director Jeff Steit zer, making his BSC debut, is "one of the last great Far ceurs," Boyd said.
"One of the things that makes farce so delicious is all of the physical comedy," she said.
But to Boyd, it's all about the words.
"It's just so clever and wit ty," she said.
The British have kept up the historically fast pace of Shake speare's plays in their comedies, she said: "The way they approach language, they really drive it."
She finds a scene when the two lead characters act out an especially lively excerpt from Coward's "Private Lives" "to tally delicious."
But, she said, "it has to be really well done."
Behind the outrageous and the clever, she looks for a solid human warmth.
"The more real the characters are," she said, "to me the funnier it is."
Shakespeare & Company
Depression isn't a typical topic for a comedy. But in the hands of Shakespeare & Com pany stalwart Annette Mille r, the results will be memorable.
Known for powerhouse portrayals of Golda Meir, Diane Vreeland and Martha Mitch ell, and ensemble roles from Shake spearean tragedy to a demonic mother-in-law in "The Ladies Man," Miller will return this summer in Charles Busch's Tony-nominated Broad way hit, "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife."
Marjorie is an arts-obsessed society matron living on Riverside Drive with her altruistic husband, played by Malcolm Ingram. She has it all, Miller explained by phone -- the wherewithal, a supportive husband, even a supportive doorman.
She also has a nagging mother living down the hall, played by actress and TV host Sonya Hamlin.
"Their relationship is hysterical," Miller revealed.
Marjorie's idea of an ordinary day, immersed in Man hat tan's arts scene, is "ex hausting and extremely fun ny," Miller said. "She's a take off on that person who runs to everything -- who we so need," she added. "We want those ‘culture vultures' in the audience."
But Marjorie is struggling. As she faces her feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, laughter at familiar pain turns into laughter that can heal.
The play contains "some wonderful physical humor, along with some upper-middle-class kind of angst," said Miller. "The way we deal with problems is often times to laugh at them and feel the humor."
We're laughing at our most extreme self, she observed: "We're going to find a lot to recognize."
What: 'Importance of Being Earnest' at Williamstown Theatre Festival
Where: '62 Center, Main Street, Williamstown
When: July 19 to 29
What: 'See How They Run'
at Barrington Stage Company
Where: 30 Union St., Pittsfield
When: Aug. 9 to 26
What: 'The Tale of the Allergist's Wife' at Shakespeare & Company
Where: 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: June 12 to Sept. 1