NEW YORK — Plenty of men have played Oscar Wilde’s fearsome Lady Bracknell. But it never crossed his mind, David Hyde Pierce said firmly, to cast a man in the role in his gangster production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
“That’s not true,” Hyde Pierce corrected himself a moment later, just as firmly. “At one point, I was thinking that it would be someone like James Gandolfini — but not playing a woman. In the sort of gangster way that people all have nicknames, they would just call him Lady Bracknell. But, in thinking that through, I thought — aside from the fact that James probably would have other things to do — that that took the concept one step too far.”
In his take on Wilde’s very British comedy of manners, which opens the Williamstown Theatre Festival season Tuesday, an American organized crime family has returned to London. The year is 1932, and Prohibition has been very good to Lady Bracknell, her marriageable daughter Gwendolen, and her puckish nephew Algernon, whose friend Jack masquerades as a young man named Ernest.
Other than a few line trims — like the reference to Algernon’s having gone to Oxford, not a good fit for this particular gangster — the text is just as Wilde wrote it, Hyde Pierce said.
“The rule I gave myself was that I wouldn’t do it if I felt I had to change things,” the former “Frasier” star explained one morning at the festival’s Manhattan office, before he and the cast headed to Massachusetts. “I didn’t want this to be an adaptation.”
Appropriately, it was in England that he found his American Lady Bracknell. Tyne Daly starred last fall in Hyde Pierce’s directorial debut, a musical called “It Shoulda Been You,” at New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse. Earlier this year, she earned raves as Maria Callas in “Master Class” in the West End. Over tea with Daly in London, he told her about his second directing gig: the Williamstown “Earnest.”
“Although she didn’t say anything, I saw her face light up,” said Hyde Pierce, who’d been toying with the gangster idea ever since the “Frasier” cast, in 2004, took him up on his suggestion that they do “The Importance of Being Earnest.” In a benefit staged reading, Hyde Pierce was Algernon, Kelsey Grammer was Jack, and John Mahoney was Lady Bracknell. Afterward, Hyde Pierce envisioned doing the piece with actors who wouldn’t be cast in a traditional production.
“I started thinking about it and hearing the language through, instead of Oscar’s characters, Damon Runyon’s characters,” he said. “And I was intrigued.”
His cast includes Louis Cancelmi as Algernon, Glenn Fitzgerald as Jack, and Marylouise Burke as Miss Prism, governess to Jack’s ward.
“It’s such an interesting way of going at it: a whole other way of looking at the dynamics in the play, just because the language sounds different,” said Burke, who is probably best known for playing the fluttery, hopeful mom to Paul Giamatti’s Miles in the 2004 movie “Sideways.” “But the words are the same, so the same things are going on.”
A favorite of playwrights like David Lindsay-Abaire, the diminutive Burke tends to be cast in contemporary work. She’s never done Wilde before — and, she said, the closest she’s been to gangster drama was a movie satire called “Series 7: The Contenders,” in which she and her “Earnest” castmate Fitzgerald played contestants forced to kill or be killed on a reality TV show. (“It was just a pleasure to tote a pistol and be that fierce,” Burke said in her cartoon voice.)
Daly has never performed Wilde before, either, but she welcomed the chance to work with Hyde Pierce and to shift gears from what she called the “very difficult and serious and, in many ways, painful energy” of “Master Class.” Still, she has a bit of a history with “Earnest.”
“The only audition I ever quit in my life was an audition for ‘Importance of Being Earnest,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘You know something, I love this stuff, and I think it’s extraordinarily funny and delightful and smart, and I have no idea how to do it, so I have to leave.’ ” That was years ago, and Daly laughed as she told the story. “But because I think I maybe was fearful of it as a traditional production, that might be another reason why this production was so attractive to me.”
Less attractive to her: the notion that Lady Bracknell — a role that’s been played by Edith Evans and Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith, and that was originated by Rose Leclercq in 1895 — ought to be played by a man.
“Somebody actually said to me the other day, ‘Well, you know, the part was written for a man,’” Daly said. “That’s the kind of revisionist claiming that’s just silly and has to do with people who are ignorant of the history of their profession.”
And when Hyde Pierce, in talking with her, framed Lady Bracknell’s power in terms of Gandolfini and Marlon Brando, she was having none of it.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I get it about the power. She’s the power. But her power has got to be feminine power because she’s a woman, rather than the way that men utilize and exercise their power.’ So we’re getting toward that,” Daly said. “It’s fun. After the first week of rehearsal, he said, ‘I’m seeing now what you mean.’ ”
The perception of Lady Bracknell reminds her of something she’s been told about another iconic role on her resumé: “Well, in order to play Rose, in ‘Gypsy,’ you need to have balls.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Daly said. “I think what you need to have is womb, and that that’s a really different deal. So that’s usually what I bring.”