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The Importance of Being Earnest

David Hyde Pierce's clever and funny version of Oscar Wilde's play is set among the world of American gangsters in 1930s London. logo
Glenn Fitzgerald, Amy Spanger, Shaun Lennon
and Tyne Daly in The Importance of Being Earnest
(© T. Charles Erickson)
The most important thing about any production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is that it's funny, and David Hyde Pierce's inventive version, now at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, happily produces consistent laughs.

Pierce has cleverly -- and daringly -- reset the work in 1930s England, where extravagant bachelor Algernon Moncrieff (Louis Cancelmi), his cousin, Gwendolyn (Amy Spanger), and her fearsome mother Lady Bracknell (Tyne Daly) are all members of an American gangster family. Indeed, Lady Bracknell even has her own bodyguard, Butch (Shaun Lennon), ready and armed to rub someone out at a moment's notice.

Meanwhile, Algernon's best pal, the serious Jack Worthing (Glenn Fitzgerald) also seems to be part of the mob world, and when we meet his lovely young ward, Cecily Cardew (Helen Cespedes), she also speaks a little bit like a gun moll. And while Cecily's tutor Miss Prism (the delicious Marylouise Burke) and local rector Dr. Chasuble (Henry Stram, gloriously affected) may not be "conncected," they both speak with American accents, for no discernible reason.

The gangster gimmick (evoked perfectly by Michael Knauss' costumes), fortunately, doesn't interfere with Wilde's perfectly constructed plot, in which Jack (who calls himself Ernest) tries to secure his engagement to Gwendolyn over Lady Bracknell's objections and Algernon -- who has traveled to Jack's country home in the guise of Jack's debauched (if non-existent) younger brother -- instantly falls for Gwendolyn.

At times, the actors' Damon Runyonesque delivery makes less of Wilde's epigrammatic quips than is ideal, but the fine cast, led by a spot-on Cancelmi, all shine. In particular, Gwendolyn has never seemed as substantial or as hilarious as she does here in Spanger's priceless portyal, and Daly makes Lady Bracknell a sharp, tough cookie rather than a blithering idiot.

As good as everyone is, though, the real star of the show is Allen Moyer's amazing scenic design. In Act I, the various rooms of Algernon's London flat -- from a back-room kitchen to a handsome parlor -- parade by swifly in railroad-car style. Then, after a mere 15-minute break, the outside of Jack's country home shows up, complete with a pastoral background that would make Fragonard weep with envy, followed by a gorgeously conceived version of the house's living room.

One should never underestimate the importance of great sets to complement a fine production!

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