David Hyde Pierce says there wasn't a "Eureka!" moment when it occurred to him to set Oscar Wilde's classic comedy of manners in manors, "The Importance of Being Earnest" with the playwright's characters as transplanted American gangsters in the 1930s.
In the Williamstown Theatre Festival season opening show — in which Pierce deftly directs — Algernon and Jack Worthing are mid-level hoods, Cecily and Gwendolen are a couple of molls, the butler Lane is a spaghetti sauce-stirring bodyguard, and Lady Bracknell, as portrayed by Tyne Daly, is one tough cookie who packs heat in more ways than one.
"I've always loved the play," says Pierce, 53, nattily dressed in an elegant summer chapeau. He says he always loved the work and participated in a benefit performance of the play in Los Angeles in 2004 with the cast of "Frasier," the long-running TV series in which Pierce played the persnickety psychiatrist Niles Crane, brother of Kelsey Grammer's title character.
And who played Lady Bracknell? "John Mahoney (who played Pierce's father in "Frasier." Lady Bracknell had a dog (referring to Eddie, the Parsons terrier character in the TV series).
Pierce had another thou follow-up notion. "I thought it would be fun to do a benefit and cast people who, in a million years, you would never think to cast," says Pierce. "People like Russell Crowe, James Gandolfini and Christopher Walken. I wasn't thinking gangsters so much, but just people who would be the opposite of whom you would expect to be cast."
That idea never materialized but the more Pierce thought about it the more he began hearing Wilde's arch dialogue and epigrams spoken in the stylized gangster parlance of writer Damon Runyan. "There was the same music in both writing. Runyon's characters don't use contractions. They frequently use unusually articulate words for people of their station. And they frequently make up words; like a Runyon character would use the word 'lettuce' when they mean 'money.' "
Pierce says he was aware of a Youtube mash-up created by young actors in the recent Broadway revival of "Earnest" having their characters speak dialogue verbatim from TV's"Jersey Shore" — but in an over-articulated style and attitude of their Wilde roles.
"But that's a different thing," he says."The parallels here run deeper because what you have in both cases — of the worlds of Wilde and gangsters — are people who are creating their own version of an established society and living simultaneously within and outside the rules and context of that society.
"Once I started to see that, I thought that this was more than just a coincidence of how language is used. There are some fundamental issues that are the same in both of these two worlds. I then had to read through the whole play with this in mind. I was waiting for the shoe to drop when the concept didn't work — but it never happened."
But Pierce says he had to find a reason for having American gangsters in London and he thought a simple title card at the start of the play that said in 1932 at the height of Prohibition, gangsters made their money in the U.S., left the country and moved to London to set up shop. Old habits die hard, even over cucumber sandwiches and tea.
The Williamstown cast includes Glenn Fitzgerald (who recently acted in the premiere of Will Eno's "The Realistic Jonbeses" at Yale Repertory Theatre), Louis Cancelmi, Henry Stram, Amy Spanger, Helen Rita Cespedes and Marylouise Burke.
Yale Led To Williamstown
Pierce's Connecticut connections include the time he was an undergrad at Yale beginning in 1977 and later in two productions at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre as a young actor in the early '80s in Phillip Barry's "Holiday" with Jill Eikenberry and Joanne Camp, and "Camille" starring Kathleen Turner.
Piece , who grew up in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., went to Yale intending to be a music major but by the end of his first year he felt he did not have the talent or drive to make it in the profession and started exploring his love of theater. (He performed in his freshman year in the Gilbert & Sullivan Society's production of "H.M.S. Pinafore" and he later directed "Princess Ida.")
An acting course he took with director Nikos Psacharopoulos led to an invitation in 1980 to come to the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Massachusetts Berkshires — where the professor was also artistic director. At the summer arts enclave. Pierce became a member of the theater's non-Equity company.
"The experience of being here was incredible," says Pierce, "because I was working with such good actors: Blythe Danner, Edward Herrmann, Colleen Dewhurst, Celeste Holm, Christopher Reeve, John Glover and Frank Langella. These were artists who valued Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. It was theater of substance. I now realize it was the place where I developed my standards about how theater should be done, though not knowing that at the time. This was where I started."
When it came time to leave Williamstown and Yale, Herrmann advised Pierce to try his hand in New York to see if he indeed wanted to act for a living before committing to a long graduate collegiate training program in theater. Pierce followed that advice, got connected to a casting agent and before long he found himself in 1982 in a supporting a role playing a waiter in a Broadway play, Christopher Durang's "Beyond Therapy."
"I had my Equity card, I was in a Broadway production, I was working with another slew of amazing actors and I was having an amazing time. The play opened, the New York Times hated it, and we closed. I got the whole New York acting package. That's when I know that this was a place for me."
Pierce might have remained as a regular stage actor but television called. He was praised for a scene-stealing role that tapped into his low-key comic style in the unsuccessful Normal Lear series, "The Powers That Be." Then came the 11-year run of "Frasier," where he was nominated for an Emmy in each of the seasons.
When "Frasier" was over in 2004, Pierce, winning a record four Emmys for his role in the serres, returned to Broadway, first in the musical "Spamalot"directed by Mike Nichols, then "Accent on Youth," and off-Broadway's "Close Up Space." He received and a Tony Award for the Kander and Ebb musical "Curtains" and last year he co-starred in the Broadway revival of the comedy "La Bête," directed by Matthew Warchus.
Pierce's focus now is clearly on the stage and more directing ("It completely consumes me.") He staged a production of a new musical, "It Shoulda Been You" at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. starring Tyne Daly.
He recently returned to acting in a workshop production of a new musical by John Kander and Pierce's nephew, Greg Pierce, entitled "The Landing", at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theater. This fall he will star with Sigourney Weaver in Christopher Durang's new play, "Vanya and Sonia and Marsha and Spike" at Princeton University's McCarter Theatre before transferring to off-Broadway's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. Nicholas Martin directs.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST continues on the main stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1000 Main St. Williamstown, Mass. The show continues through Saturday, July 14, Information: 413-597-3400 and http://www.wtfestival.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times