WILLIAMSTOWN -- Simply put, whether set in stodgy Victorian England or in England of the 1930s, the underlying emphasis of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" still holds true.
David Hyde Pierce, in only his second directorial role, has brought Wilde's social satire to the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage with a new twist -- choosing to forgo the traditional 1895 setting and resetting it in 1930s England with a cast of transplanted American Mafioso.
Pierce has said his intention was to show that Wilde's text would hold -- whether or not it was spoken with British accents.
And in some cases, Pierce's choice to give his actors Damon Runyon-esque accents breathes new life into the text, which was always meant to underscore the absurdity of societal morals -- particularly those held by the upper class.
The production begins in the kitchen of bachelor Algernon Moncrieff's (Louis Cancelmi) London flat, where preparations are under way for the arrival of his aunt and cousin. The scene, which could easily be the kitchen of the Corleone family from "The Godfather," sets the stage for what is to come -- a pair of wise guys eat in the background, as Alger non's butler, Lane (Sean Cullen) prepares a sauce. Pierce has taken few liberties with changing the text or the plot, save removing references to Algernon having attended Oxford. He presents "Earnest" in its true form. Ernest "Jack" Worthing (Glenn Fitzgerald)
Both Algernon and Jack disclose they have created personas that allow them to leave behind their burdensome social obligations. Worthing is Jack in the country and Ernest in the city. At home, he uses his imagined younger brother, Ernest, as a means to leave his ward, Cecily (Helen Ces pedes) to escape to the city. Meanwhile Algernon uses an imaginary country friend, the ailing Bunbury, to escape from the city.
Algernon, after learning the location of his friend's country estate, poses as Ernest Worthing during a visit and falls instantly for Cecily. In the course of events, Jack returns to the estate, pursued by Gwendolyn, who meets Cecily, and it is revealed they are each engaged to Ernest Worthing -- unaware that their beau is a different man using the guise.
Allen Malloy has created three sumptuous sets. In Act I, the stage moves with the characters, revealing different rooms of Algernon's loft. It is a feat that in itself is wonderful, but overpowers the action on stage until it settles in the parlor, upon the arrival of Lady Bracknell.
While Pierce has admitted he toyed with the idea of using the more modern ploy of casting a man as Lady Bracknell, going as far as mentioning the actor James Gandolfini, having done so would have been a disservice.
Daly's portrayal of Lady Bracknell, matriarch of the mob family that made its fortune during the prohibition before relocating to England, is astounding. In her hands, Lady Bracknell is no longer a societal matriarch, but the nouveau riche. Daly's Brack nell has all the airs of a lady of the upper class -- she often recites societal expectations and wants her daughter to marry within her class -- yet she still displays the mannerisms from her former life as mob matriarch (think the legendary Ma Barker).
By casting Daly in the role, Pierce has let the character speak in a new voice -- she is no lady and can command a room. When she speaks, the men listen. Her power is complemented by the presence of a body guard, portrayed by Shaun Lennon, who in real life is a security guard at Williams College.
The downfall of the production is that every character has an American accent. It's hard to suspend all belief that everyone, including Worthing, who was raised by an English man, Cecily and her governess, Miss Prism (Mary louise Burke) and local rector Dr. Chasuble (Henry Stram) would be a transplant.
But that aside, the production is solid and funny, as it should be. Whether the characters are dressed in Victorian suits or those of wise guys with gun holsters, it still holds together. It may also prove to be more palatable for a generation raised on reality television shows, many of which draw upon the lavish lifestyles of New York/New Jersey upper class families.
Pierce has accomplished his goal. With this production, he proves that Wilde's assertions -- that the upper class lives by an absurd code of moral standards and expectations -- aren't limited to a single time period. And that's what's im portant about this production.