Burns and Murray Talk About The Importance of Being Earnest at the Williamstown Theatre Festival
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
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Larry Murray: It is entirely possible that in the 120 years since it was written by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), The Importance of Being Earnest (1894) has been performed at least a million times. It is among the most popular of the classic British plays to perform, its clever humor and refined disposition a perfect vehicle for community theatre groups to cast a whole raft of players.
So when a major theatre wants to do this classic, they look for a twist.
Gail Burns: Pierce was a brilliant choice because he deeply loves and respects Wilde’s work, but was able to hear something new in it – that Wilde’s rhythms were closely akin to those of Damon Runyon (1880-1946), a very popular journalist and author in his day. The adjective “Runyonesque” was actually coined to describe the distinctive writing style he developed for his short stories about New York gangsters and gamblers, some of which formed the basis for the musical Guys and Dolls. Actually, Pierce first had this epiphany in reverse when, while reading Runyon with the prerequisite “Dese, Dem, Dose” New Yawk accent, he realized that he could also read it with an upper-crust British lilt and have it make sense.
So he took The Importance of Being Earnest and reimagined it as a play about two Runyonesque fellows who have immigrated to England to enjoy the fortunes they have made as rum-runners during prohibition in America.
In short, John “Jack” Worthing (Glenn Fitzgerald) and Algernon Moncrief (Louis Cancelmi) are thugs attempting to enter and pass as members of the British upper class in 1932. Algernon’s Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell (Tyne Daly), and her daughter Gwendolyn Fairfax (Any Spanger), and Jack’s teenaged ward, Cecily Cardew (Helen Cespedes), come from the same milieux.
They are trying REALLY hard, and the reaction of the few actual Brits with whom we see them interact – Reverend Chausible (Henry Stram), Merriman (Paul Anthony McGrane), Lane (Sean Cullen), and an unnamed gardener – is hilarious.
Larry: I was not overly impressed with the new approach that Pierce gave Earnest in the first act, but as the second and third acts evolved, it became more and more fascinating. The production didn’t end up only revolving around the two appearances of Lady Bracknell, but rather the intricate relationships between the two pairs of lovers, and the conniving rivalry between the brothers.
Gail: While I enjoyed all the actors, I would give low marks to Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis. Accents – American and British – came and went rapidly, which considerably weakened Pierce’s overall concept.
Larry: Cancelmi clearly had the upper hand with the Runyonesque accent, just look at his name. And as the play progressed, he maintained his characterization without wandering off the accent as some of the other actors did. What made his reading compelling from my viewpoint is that I have known guys like him who speak that way. They use slow and steady diction, due deference and politeness to compensate for what they lack in education. And later, when Gwendolyn arrived with Lady Bracknell, I was dazzled. Amy Spangler was ravishingly beautiful, especially when contrasted with the crusty old dame, and gave an entirely new meaning to this character. Not to be outdone, the other love interest, Cecily Cardew – was given a proper and perky presence by Helen Cespedes whenever she was on stage.
Gail: It was Spangler’s performance that really cemented Pierce’s concept for me. If Gwendolyn Fairfax can be transformed into Billie Dawn without changing a word of the script, then I can buy The Importance of Being Earnest as a screwball comedy from the 1930′s.
Larry: Like the later American film genre of screwball comedy, Earnest skewers pretense and haughtiness, and in typical topsy-turvy fashion has a final denouement where unwanted babies in handbags are left in the oddest places, and everyone turns out not to be who they thought they were. It was a theatrical and story device made wildly popular in Victorian Britain by W.S. Gilbert in his operetta collaborations with Arthur Sullivan. Along with a little Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes style deducing to flesh out the authenticity of these contrived solutions.
Gail: Speaking of Gilbertian twists, do you know my grandfather, my uncle and my cousin are ALL named Earnest? Spelled just that way too. It gives me a special affinity for this play, which I directed once long ago.
Larry: The first act has an amazing visual effect with a parade of sets actually moving like a train to follow the characters. Sort of like a giant cutaway dollhouse with a parade of rooms passing by as the characters move from kitchen to parlor. I thought set designer Allen Moyer wowed everyone with that opening act, and then topped it with both his Garden and Morning Rooms at the Manor House in acts two and three. Ben Stanton’s lighting was classy too.
Gail: I found the set for Act I distracting and overblown. It was “look what we have the money to do” instead of an aid to advancing plot or character, or, in this case, Pierce’s concept. But I liked the single sets for Acts II and III and Stanton’s lighting very much.
Larry: What did you make of the costumes, the crossover from Victorian Britain to the years between the two World Wars?
Gail: The British upper classes were not too severely impacted by the Great Depression. The manufacturing sector in the industrial cities of the UK, and the working class employed there were the hardest hit. That being said, the British made their only splash in the style world of the 20th century with the Mod Carnaby Street look in the 1960′s. The clothing of this period is pretty drab and functional. The only character costume designer Michael Krass really gets to go to town on is Lady Bracknell. That black and white ensemble that Daly wore in Act III, which is really more 1920′s than 1930′s, was to die for.
Larry: And then for the final act everyone was crammed into the Morning Room of the Manor House for the unraveling.
Gail: The lynchpin of the plot is Miss Prism (Marylouise Burke) who we meet as the governess Jack employs to tutor his young ward Cecily. I thought she was just delightfully played by Burke, who brought a wonderful breathless flightiness to the character. When she embraced that handbag in Act III I have never seen a woman so truly grateful to be reunited with a piece of luggage in all my life. Her flirtation with Rev. Chausible was also very nicely underplayed by both Burke and Stram with hilarious results.
Larry: It was in Act III that Lady Bracknell reappeared to become the deus ex machina for Wilde. When she asked Miss Prism to step forward it was like watching Detective Mary Beth Lacey asking the suspect questions all over again. I had mixed feeling about that. Some actors disappear inside their roles, others just alter a basic persona to fit the part. Daly is of the latter school, don’t you think? I did not forget for one instant that I was watching Tyne Daly on stage.
Gail: I have never seen Daly on stage before, although I have watched videos of her take on Mama Rose in Gypsy, nor have I really watched her on TV. Lady Bracknell is a monumental role, and as you mentioned earlier she has been played by men recently with great success. I had imagined Daly to be capable of expanding into this role – after all they don’t come much brasher or more domineering than Mama Rose – but sadly she failed. Her reading was a terse and flat Lady Bracknell, and I was distressed that she constantly flubbed her lines.
Larry: Any other quibbles, complaints or constructive criticism?
Gail: I think basically this production proved to me that even with changes in leadership, there’s still a problem with attention to details. Why did the set move in Act I and not Acts II & III? Why were the accents so mushy? Why didn’t Daly know her lines? I felt like Pierce came in with a really interesting and well thought-out concept but was let down in the details by a company a few of whom may be under the mistaken impression that they are on summer vacation.
Larry: We will have to disagree on that point, there is clear evidence they strive for excellence, but there have to be a million loose ends in the short time they have to prepare a show. We can disagree on the sets, but there is no excuse for being so inattentive to the details that you can see the stagehands. It breaks the mood.
Still it was a bold undertaking. A brash and inventive Williamstown Theatre Festival production like this shows that you can update a classic Oscar WIide play in many different ways, keeping an old chestnut hot and delicious. I recommend this production to our readers, the only caveat being that this is not a perfect production, but one of the most interesting you are likely to ever see.
Gail: Exactly, if they like novelty in their life, they’re going to be just Wilde about this Earnest.
Larry: By the way Gail, I was surprised you had a ticket for the same performance as I.
Gail: There’s a story about that. A few readers may recall that the WTF revoked my press privileges early in the 2010 season and may be wondering how I come to be your collaborator here. I did not attend on a press pass, and the story of how I was suddenly gifted a ticket to the same matinee performance that you were planning to attend is about as Gilbertian as Wilde’s plot. Although I often use the word, I am not “banned” from attending WTF performances, and the First Amendment protects my right to express my opinion of what I see. I went under my own steam, I saw, we write. Its as simple as that.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs until July 14 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage. the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It runs about two hours fifteen minutes plus two short intermissions.