Special to the Banner
If you want to tell the difference between a great director and all the rest, just walk around a theater during intermissions. When you see someone exiting a side door from backstage, mumbling in deep thought about the performance -- then changing roles to the gracious host as he hits the lobby -- chances are you are in the presence of a master.
On opening night of Williamstown Theatre Festival’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest," David Hyde Pierce revealed this side of himself not once, but twice during the breaks. He roamed the halls oblivious to his surroundings, focused intently on his players’ performances, until it was time to meet the public.
Judging by the lobby buzz greeting him, everyone loved what they saw, and with good reason. Since this winter, it’s been known that Pierce would move Wilde’s timeless comedy several decades forward from its original 1895 setting -- and turn it into "Guys and Dolls" meets "Downton Abbey." The potential payoff from fusing an American Mob family with English peerage proved his instincts to be spot-on.
And so we convened in the 1932 London town home of American goodfellah Algernon (Louis Cancelmi) who received his friend, country gentleman Jack Worthing (Glenn Fitzgerald). Jack had designs on heiress Gwendolen (Amy Spanger), the child of an English lord and American crime family matriarch Lady Bracknell (Tyne Daly). The Mafia mama, not surprisingly, disapproved of any union for her daughter that didn’t return a financial haul.
From there, we moved to Jack’s country estate and met his nymphet ward Cecily Cardew (Helen Cespedes), who was under the aegis of governess Miss Prism (Marylouise Burke), and the occasional forays of Rev. Canon Chasuble (Henry Stram). When Algernon showed up unannounced, the fun begins.
Daly’s brilliance was never in question -- that was a given, and she delivered the bombastic goods. Past that, however, her casting reveals Pierce’s vital appreciation for placing the biggest star in a supporting role: Daly raised the rest of the players, and they eagerly climbed to her heights.
So there’s plenty of credit to spread. Cancelmi -- 5 o’clock shadow, greased hair and all -- played the perfect benevolent mobster, a satire on the smoothest noir bad guy. Along with him was Spanger, who is a dead ringer for a younger 1989 Miss America and current TV journalist Gretchen Carlson. Her period pixie looks and rendition of the Jersey-inspired Mafia-accented discussion of metaphysics left the audience in constant guffaw.
While no one expected Fitzgerald to play the 1939 John Gielgud version of Jack -- still the role’s standard -- he did well to get close. And Cespedes’ effervescence screamed "naïve, gullible virgin," all the way to her angelic all-white outfit.
Stram’s double-edged innuendo of holiness and sin delivered more than its share of laughs, but we must concede the evening’s best moments to Burke, who stole the show on numerous occasions. Her adroit monologues with Cicely were matchless, and away from the lightning-pace script, her facial expressions in reaction to events around her were worth the price of admission alone. It was physical comedy at its best.
The set design by Allen Moyer was rife with innovation, mostly in the three-room rolling dissection of a London flat. Attention to detail of the era’s props and decor were extraordinary. Lights by Ben Stanton (urban mood in Act I, country feel afterward) and sound by Jill BC Du Boff (period jazz) were eerily effective. Superbly sophisticated period costumes by Michael Krass rounded out the milieu.
The show runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, including two 10-minute intermissions. Other than a few line flubs to be expected on opening night, Pierce had to be giddy with how smoothly his Mafia-inspired characters kept the repartee at a Tommy-Gun rate of fire.
It’s no wonder, then, that during the intermissions, the pensive, wandering Pierce beamed with a lion’s pride once crossing the lobby threshold toward a satisfied public. That’s a transition from fixation to panache that even Oscar Wilde could love.
Contact Telly Halkias at email@example.com.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" runs through July 14 on the Main Stage in the ‘62 Center for the Arts at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. For tickets and information call 413-597-3400 or visit wtfestival.org or visit the box office.