David Hyde Pierce Reimagines The Importance of Being Earnest, With a "Mob" Twist
By Mervyn Rothstein
Oscar Wilde's Victorian classic is placed in Prohibition-era Noo Yawk in an Earnest new staging conceived by David Hyde Pierce, starring Tyne Daly, at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
The first thing David Hyde Pierce wants you to know about Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which he's directing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, "is that it doesn't need my help. My idea for it is a way for actors and audience to play and see this great piece in a new light, and maybe see from a different perspective what a great play it is."
And what an idea! Courtesy of Hyde Pierce, Wilde's comic farce, set among 1890s Victorian England's aristocracy, has been transposed to Prohibition time; the characters have become American gangsters, Damon Runyonesque figures like those in Guys and Dolls, who have fled across the pond to escape, as Williamstown describes it, "entanglements."
Tyne Daly stars as Lady Bracknell, who in this production, Hyde Pierce says, is "a cross between Ma Barker and Don Corleone." The plot, in the festival's description, concerns "two wise guys" falling hard "for two tough dolls."
"What I've discovered," says Hyde Pierce, who won four Emmys for "Frasier" and a 2007 Tony for Curtains, "is that the way Oscar Wilde and his characters use language is weirdly similar to the way Damon Runyon's characters use language. The characters from Guys and Dolls have a similar kind of heightened use of words — a very hyper-articulate way of speaking."
He started to read through Earnest "using that dialect" — a very urban New York way of speaking — "just for fun, and the more I did it, the further I got into the play, the more I started to hear the underlying structure and brilliance, which I had frankly sort of forgotten, because I take it for granted. I think we all know the play so well and are familiar with the famous lines, and associate it with a particular time and attitude and style, which is totally appropriate, and I thought maybe taking it out of that style might be fun, might have benefit."
The result? "By making these characters essentially members of an organized crime family, the relationships become very powerful. When people are concealing their identities, when they have buried secrets, when money's an issue, when family connection's an issue, all of that takes on a clearer and stronger tone when you're dealing with gangsters."
Jenny Gersten, Williamstown's artistic director, says that "what's perfect for Williamstown is that it gives all these artists, David and the cast, an opportunity to do the kind of material they otherwise wouldn't have a chance to do."
Earnest, running June 26-July 14, opens Williamstown's Main Stage season, which includes a preview production of Far From Heaven, a new musical starring Kelli O'Hara based on a 2002 movie about a 1950s housewife. The book is by Richard Greenberg, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. Among the festival's other productions are a new play, Whaddabloodclot!!! by Katori Hall (The Mountaintop); Patricia Clarkson and Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man; a workshop of a new theatrical event about Filipina first lady Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love, created by David Byrne with music by Byrne and Fatboy Slim; and Blythe Danner in The Blue Deep by Lucy Boyle.
Hyde Pierce says Williamstown is very important him; his career started there. "I was an undergraduate at Yale when Nikos Psacharopoulos, who founded the festival, brought me there in 1980 and 1981. It's where I first worked with professional actors, first experienced the incredible energy and passion and quality of what's done at Williamstown."
(This feature appears in the June subscription issue of Playbill magazine.)
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