The laughs come regularly at Williamstown Theatre Festival’s 2012 season-opening Main Stage production. This isn’t surprising: Oscar Wilde was a genius, and The Importance of Being Earnest is his comic masterpiece. It’s a damned funny social satire of the upper class. The play is filled with misprisions, beginning with the title and running, usually, right through to the last line; the male leads, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, both pretend to be “Ernest Worthing,” sometimes in the same moment, causing other characters to mistake who each male is for the all-important (but nonexistent) “Ernest,” hence the play’s title. One of the characters is even named “Miss Prism.” It’s an essential device to comedy, and this comedy in particular.
The surprising “misprision” in this production is in director David Hyde Pierce’s conceit (in his WTF debut), which marries Damon Runyon to Oscar Wilde and destroys the social satire. “[We’re] hoping that after a few moments you will forget about us and our fancy footwork and reacquaint yourselves with the wise guy who penned this show, because as shows go this one is high-class goods indeed,” as Pierce stated in the program.
It’s not just the 1930s American gangster accents, elocution, rhythms, and costumes; the concept alone isn’t the crime here. Director Pierce might as well have landed Star Wars on the play and had a light saber battle over the force of the all important muffins in Act 2, or staged the play in Hogwarts.
What Pierce’s conceit does is “murdah” Wilde’s wit. Jack says early in Earnest, “My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression.” That’s not meant as a compliment to Algy or as a suggestion for a director. The accents and rhythms of Pierce’s conceit make Wilde’s play not the satire of the pretentious upper class, but a farce about lower-class American social climbers deadening Wilde’s “perfectly phrased” lines. It’s like listening to community theater by the Jersey Shore cast, with Snookie as Cecily and the Situation as Algernon. It is underhanded class warfare of the worst kind.
The stagecraft and the pacing are fine. The cast, led by the redoubtable Broadway legend Tyne Daly as the legendary Lady Bracknell, handle the added layer of American gangster and still retain some sense of timing. The unfortunate reliance on the constant threat of physical violence, however, with hands-in-pockets or menacing shoulder shrugs, adds to the marring of the play; this also leads to the killing of the play’s last line, “I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest,” which is cut off by a hail of gunfire. The threat in social conventions is mocked in Wilde’s play, an irony lost in the mechanical rat-a-tat-tat of Pierce’s tommy-gun production.