Monday, August 6, 2012

Juicing Up the Classics: The Importance of Being Earnest at Williamstown

The Importance of Being Earnest
The only hard-and-fast rule about refurbishing a classic play should be that any new production has to be true to the spirit of the text. And that’s a broad requirement: to my mind, Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film of Hamlet, set in New York at the millennium, and Alfonso Cuarón’s 1997 Great Expectations, where the hero becomes a young painter from the Gulf Coast whose mysterious mentor sets him up in a studio in Manhattan, both fit it. But some plays are so tied to the period in which they were written that removing them from it throws them into limbo.

I think that’s true of Chekhov’s dramas, in which the relationship between the women and men on stage and the culture that produced them is so specific. That’s one of the reasons that the Sydney Theatre Company’s touring production of Uncle Vanya, adapted by Andrew Upton and directed by Tamás Ascher, didn’t work at all for me. Actually I’m not sure when this version is meant to take place – as Yelena, Cate Blanchett (Upton’s wife) seems to be, from her costumes, living in the 1950s but the men’s suits look to be circa World War I – but the setting feels like the Australian outback, and though I imagine Upton and Ascher have sound reasons for making a connection between it and turn-of-the-century provincial Russia, I didn’t buy the switch, so instead of making a play that is timeless (in terms of theme and character) more relevant – a pointless aim – ironically it ends up being less convincing.

Uncle Vanya at the Sydney Theatre Company
So does the coarsening of Astrov’s language (he suspects the Professor, with his aches and pains, of bullshitting rather than shamming, as most translations, have it, and so forth). Ascher’s production is impressively staged and quite handsome, but I found it so uninvolving that I ducked out at intermission, right after the reconciliation scene between Yelena and her stepdaughter Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), which Ascher chose to stage as a drunken revel between a pair of schoolgirls, with a lot of eruptive laughter and flopping about the stage. It’s a serious liability in a Chekhov play when you don’t care about a single character. So I guess there’s another hard-and-fast rule after all: you have to give the audience an emotional reason to come back after intermission.

Molière’s plays can make sense in a variety of settings, but not Oscar Wilde’s. He was the quintessential late-Victorian playwright: the social and moral restrictions of his era – which destroyed him in real life – are his great subject, and never was he more incisive about them than in The Importance of Being Earnest, his only comedy and his only masterpiece. It’s a satire on the fixation of Victorian aristocrats on the demands and accoutrements of class, and when it’s performed well it’s howlingly funny; it may be the most uproarious comedy ever written. (And perhaps no one has ever performed it more brilliantly than the cast of Anthony Asquith’s 1956 movie version, with Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Dorothy Tutin and Margaret Rutherford.) David Hyde Pierce’s production, which opened the mainstage season at Williamstown this summer, is set among émigré American gangsters living in England in the 1930s. Why? Hyde Pierce has explained in interviews that when he read the play he heard the stylized language of Damon Runyon hoods (like the ones in Guys and Dolls). He ought to get his ears checked. Runyon’s characters talk in ridiculous curlicues, and the discrepancy between their education and New York accents and the convoluted diction they affect is comical, like some of Stanley Kowalski’s phrasing in A Streetcar Named Desire (especially when he talks about the Napoleonic Code). 

Director David Hyde Pierce
But the embroidered language of Wilde’s characters reflects their preference for style over substance, or to put it more precisely, their insistence that style is the only real substance; while the epigrams are explosively funny, the rhythms keep those explosions in tight check by imposing an order on them that’s as subtle and unbreakable as the measures in a courtly dance. When Jack and Algernon quibble over whether or not it’s appropriate to eat muffins in a crisis, or Gwendolen and Cecily exchange barbed comments while under the mistaken impression that they’re engaged to the same man, the rhythms in their lines both express the way in which they embody their upbringing and allow Wilde to burlesque that upbringing from within. When Hyde Pierce’s actors read the same lines with Runyon intonations, they’re at odds with them, so the focus isn’t on Wilde’s endlessly varied wit but on the single joke, repeated endlessly, of the absurdity of American thugs’ coming out with remarks like “I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.” And what on earth is the point of putting quotation marks around a play in which all the dialogue is already in quotation marks?

The concept doesn’t make sense even on the face of it. A title projected at the top of the show (which is meant, for elusive reasons, to look like a movie: Allen Moyer’s sets are framed, which gives them a peculiar dollhouse quality, like the opening images in Wes Anderson’s movie Moonrise Kingdom) informs us that the gangsters are on the lam in England. But until the third act we don’t meet a single English character, so why bother to set the play in England at all? The choice just makes us wonder why, when a couple of Brits finally show up (the servant Merriman, played by Paul Anthony McGrane, and the Reverend Chasuble, played by Henry Stram) they don’t seem non-plussed by the bizarre sound of these American visitors who are pretending to be English aristocrats. Are we supposed to think that they talk that way because they’ve picked it up from their surroundings? But Brits in the 1930s didn’t make the same cultural references as their predecessors had four decades earlier, and anyway, if Hyde Pierce claims that Wilde’s characters sound to him like Runyon gangsters of the thirties, presumably they don’t need to be placed in an English environment to justify their language. 

Tyne Daly
It’s just a silly, sophomoric game, like something actors might work up for a cast party; after two or three minutes you wait for the cast to drop it and go back to the play. They don’t, of course. As Gwendolen, Amy Spanger sounds like a gangster’s moll; Lady Bracknell (Tyne Daly, her hair done up in an elegant gray wave, looking smashing in Michael Krass’s dresses) always shows up with a bodyguard who, in act three, frisks Chasuble and holds Merriman at gunpoint (I have no idea why); there’s a gun battle at the end; and so on. Daly’s bearing is majestic and within the limitations of the concept her line readings have a certain skillfulness, and as Algernon Louis Cancelmi, with his angular Italian face and greasy slicked-back hair, probably gives the most successful performance. But Glenn Fitzgerald, who was so much fun to watch as the mean-spirited cleric brother on the TV show Dirty Sexy Money, plays Jack as a little-boy Mafioso, pouting and look down in embarrassment, and I was embarrassed for him. I couldn’t make out what Helen Cespedes was trying to do as Cecily, and I found the way Hyde Pierce directed her argument with Spanger – where she runs off and gets a garden spade in response to Gwendolen’s supercilious insistence that she’s never seen a spade, and then both of them start screaming – utterly bewildering. The rest of the performances seem to be grafted on from a variety of sources. Marylouise Burke plays Miss Prism, Cecily’s dotty governess, as scattered and fluttery in a way that might work for a pixilated old dame in a 1930s American screwball comedy (and why isn’t she English?), while Stram’s Chasuble seems to belong in an Ealing comedy from the 1950s. (He’s fun for a scene, then you get tired of him.)

Louis Cancelmi and Glenn Fitzgerald
The trick in the first-act set is that it moves from one part of Algernon’s flat to another within the frame, but Moyer drops the movie-movie idea once the play shifts to the Manor House in the countryside for acts two and three – either because the scenic demands would be too expensive to keep up or because there are too many characters on stage at the same time in the last two acts to confine them in this way. (In the first act the poor actors can barely move around.) The expansion of the playing area doesn’t help much, though, because by act two the show is effectively over. The concept is fascinatingly bad until the first intermission; I got fixed on the irony that Hyde Pierce – who may be, along with Stockard Channing and Christine Baranski, the most gifted purveyor of high-comic style among contemporary American actors – could make such a monumental mistake, as a director, with the most celebrated high comedy ever written. By act two my eyes started to glaze over. The gunfire he throws in at the end of act three drowns out Jack’s last line, which ends with the play’s title, so we never hear him say “earnest.” Then the actors come out during the curtain call and Charleston to “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” – a song and a dance craze associated with the twenties, not the thirties. Clearly the production could have used a dramaturg, but that is not, of course, its major problem. Wilde’s play is actually about something; the Williamstown production is about nothing.

playwright Herb Gardner
Herb Gardner’s comedy A Thousand Clowns made a small splash on Broadway in 1962 and the 1965 film version was nominated for the Academy Award, but the production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival last month marks one of the few times the play has been recycled. (A New York revival in 2001 with Tom Selleck attracted little notice.) Watching it at the BTF, you can see exactly why it’s vanished into obscurity. Gardner, like Murray Schisgal, who wrote Luv, was a 1960s phenomenon; these plays, which were never much good, look hopelessly dated now. In A Thousand Clowns, a non-conformist TV writer named Murray Burns (Jason Robards created the role and played it on screen) struggles with his principles and his pride before returning to the job he abandoned, writing for a neurotic, demanding host on a popular children’s show, because it’s the only way he can hold onto his twelve-year-old nephew Nick, whom child services is threatening to take away from him. (Murray has raised Nick since, at five, the boy was abandoned by his flighty single mother.) Murray’s railing against the gray institutionalization of American society appealed to audiences in the sixties, though it mostly consists of wisecracks and such creative outbursts as a series of self-parodying camp-counselor pronouncements to the other (offstage) renters in his Manhattan apartment building about the grime on their windows and the quality of their garbage. 

Gardner’s targets, embodied in the controlling, tight-assed social worker assigned to Nick’s case and the egocentric children’s-show host, are straw men, and Murray’s behavior around them, which is meant to come across as daffy on the outside and wise on the inside, makes him seem selfish and immature. It’s clear that he loves his nephew, a prodigy (a middle-aged man in a child’s body, as Murray points out), but his putting his own philosophy before Nick’s welfare – the fact that a kid some three decades younger than he is has to nag him to look for a job – seems irresponsible, to say the least. Gardner wrote the ending as downbeat (in the movie, Murray joins the parade of suited New Yorkers marching off to miserable, soulless workplaces), but it’s hard to see it that way. And are there really no other options for a TV writer in the 1960s than The Chuckles the Chipmunk Show – especially when Murray’s agent is his own brother, Arnie?

Russell Posner and CJ Wilson

Kyle Fabel’s production isn’t very good. The staging is overstated and clumsy. CJ Wilson, a talented actor, is miscast as Murray and looks straitjacketed. Both James Barry as the social worker, Albert, and Rachel Bay Jones as the novice psychiatric case worker, Sandy (whose emotional involvement in this assignment leads to her losing her job and leaving her boy friend, Albert, for Murray) are directed to make faces and funny voices. (It may be just a coincidence, but Barry sounds a whole lot like William Daniels in the movie.) Jordan Gelber isn’t too bad as Leo (a.k.a Chuckles the Chipmunk), but the character is insufferable. Andrew Polk doesn’t bring much color to the Martin Balsam role, Arnie Burns, but that may not be his fault: Balsam, who won a Supporting Oscar for playing it, really left his mark on Arnie’s speeches, so half a century later I can still hear how he read them. It’s not as though the character has much room for interpretation, anyway. The best performance is Russell Posner’s as Nick, though he’s stronger in the vocal department than in the physical one. Gardner has written the part for a young actor who can ride the sometimes tortuous arc of the lines and hit all the jokes, so it’s more a stunt than a character, but the limitations of the role are hardly Posner’s fault. Don’t expect another production of this play any time soon.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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