14 July 2012: Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Matinee. Williamstown Theatre Festival.

I go to all productions of The Importance of Being Earnest with some feelings of trepidation. This latest production, by the Williamstown Theatre Festival, has had wide publicity, and I have known pretty well what I was getting into. This is a “gangster” Earnest. The director, David Hyde Pierce, has made the characters (or most of them, at any rate) into a gang of American Mafiosi who have become expatriates in London. The period is the 1930s. We are invited at the beginning of the play to suspend our incredulity in the interests of great fun.

It is worth the effort. The characters speak in a kind of Damon Runyanesque New York patois, featuring not only “dese dose dem” pronunciations of Wilde’s words but in fact a surprising amount of affinity for the overall style of Wilde’s dialogue. A review in the Boston Globe, enlarged on the wall of the theater foyer, captured the idea: what Damon Runyon’s characters have in common with Oscar Wilde’s characters is that they speak in the same aristocratic, polysyllabic dialogue with which we are already familiar from having read both authors. It is a surprisingly good melding, holding both surprise and delight sustained through the three acts of this lightly cut play. There is a lovely quality of fantasy that shines through, a sense of a carefree life that is to be found only in the precincts of the Runyon story or the Wildean stage. Hyde Pierce adds a complement of line-less actors, including someone called “Big Julie” whose job is to be bodyguard to Lady Bracknell and to frisk any suspicious looking persons such as “Ernest” Worthing. We get the idea.

Most of the actors are good at what they do. Tyne Daly, the Lady Bracknell, is a drop-dead serious gun moll, now fully sixty-five but still full of authority and a match for any situation. Louis Cancelmi’s Algernon is a smart, impeccably dressed up-town man with a faultless Noo Yawk accent and easy, flawless diction. The same cannot quite be said for Glenn Fitzgerald’s John Worthing. The Globe reviewer said he thought Fitzgerald’s Jack was a little out of step with himself, somehow inadvertently expressing the character’s lack of knowledge of who he really is. That notion could be an interesting key-note to the character, but here it seemed Fitzgerald had not quite gotten the hang of it all. He reacts rather than acts. Despite Algy’s identification of him as “one of the most advanced Bunburyists” he has ever seen, Fitzgerald’s Jack lacks Algy’s sophistication, and his diction is less crisp than what is required. Helen Cespedes’s Cecily is winsome yet, like her character, terrifically knowing, able to play the demure card with confidence but always aware of where her next opportunity will come from. And, with her long, dark hair and Mediterranean good looks she is a delightful foil for the bleached blonde Hollywood-coiffured Amy Spanger as Gwendolen and a clear best bet in any contest with the somewhat colorless, over-mothered Spanger, whose character has been imposed on her by the director but not well assimilated. Her character? Let’s just say she will become like her mother in far less than a hundred and fifty years, but will never equal the vivid color of the maternal sang froid.

If there is a standout, it is Marylouise Burke as Miss Prism. Perhaps we cannot quite believe Cecily when she says that Miss Prism knows German and geology and things of that kind. But what she is exceedingly good at is indulging her constantly active sexual fantasy life, often in the very presence of the man she desires, the hapless, wimpish Reverend Canon Chasuble. She has a delightful manner of dithering, including considerable motor overload, that wins our hearts immediately, along with a way of speaking her lines that tends to extend the vowels slightly, so that she appears to be thinking a little hard about what word is going to come next, even while at the same time allowing the words to flow naturally. And her interactions with Henry Stram’s Canon Chasuble, himself a formidable ditherer some twenty years her younger, are immensely funny.

One particular moment in Act II cries out for retrospective description. Jack, dressed in the depths of mourning, having announced the death of his fictitious brother Ernest in a Parisian hotel, curiously asks Chasuble if he has room that afternoon for a christening. Chasuble, confused, asks Jack if there is some particular infant in which he takes an uncommon interest. Your brother was unmarried, I believe, he observes. Miss Prism interjects, “People who live entirely for pleasure usually are.” Chasuble, who earlier has rebuffed Miss Prism’s advice that he should get married, explaining that it was the practice of the primitive church for its clerics to remain celibate, reacting to her comment turns and looks at her with some alarm and embarrassment; his unspoken reaction, written clearly on his face, is that he feels accused of guilty pleasures. Miss Prism sees his expression and is herself confounded with embarrassment, realizing that she has indicted herself for the same flaw. This sequence is enacted as an extremely well timed triple take, to the great delight of the audience.

There is enough of this briskly managed by-play, invented by the director, to endow the play with much new life and freshness. Another example occurs when, in the Act II tea scene, Cecily and Gwendolen grow increasingly testy with one another, and Cecily says she is going to call a spade a spade. Gwendolen replies that she is happy to say she has never seen a spade; evidently their spheres of life have been widely different. Cecily steps off stage, brings in a long handled garden implement, and goes on with her speech. No matter that the director or his property master doesn’t know the difference between a shovel and a spade. And then, a moment later, the gardener, Moulton— not included in the cast of characters in the program — steps on stage and retrieves the implement. We have seen Moulton earlier in the act, when he comes on stage to retrieve the watering can set down by Cecily at the beginning of the act. Evidently, the insertion of this character is a sign that the director has read the four-act version of Wilde’s play, in which such a gardener character appears. No matter, also, that the director does not know that the yellow flower called the Maréchal Niel, offered to Algy by Cecily when he requests a “buttonhole,” is a rose, and consequently does not realize that Algy’s stated preference for a “pink rose” should have emphasis on “pink,” not on “rose.”

In fact, the only thing I really didn’t like about the production was the surprise invasion of the Manor House, at the very end of the play, by what is evidently a rival gang of thugs which includes the butlers from Act I and Act II, firing off loud machine guns along with pistols, in an Al Capone-like massacre. This invasion takes us all by surprise, just as we were set to enjoy the egregious pun uttered by Jack to end the play, to wit: “I’ve just realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest.” We get the joke, but it is suddenly interfered with, and as well it feels as if the sudden intrusion has not been worth the effort. I think that’s because we accepted the Mafioso metaphor, with all that it entails, as a witty complement to Wilde’s own immensely witty work: a light-weight thing entirely. Very swiftly it became nothing more than a delightful delivery system for the production. The unprepared-for invasion of the rival gang just as the curtain is about to close adds more to the metaphor than it will bear. It’s a cheap shot, and it reduces the entertainment value of the play in an unacceptable way.

Fortunately, the rest of the play still shines fairly brightly as a more than usually fresh and satisfying afternoon in the theatre.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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