WILLIAMSTOWN — It was undeniably clever on David Hyde Pierce’s part to reimagine “The Importance of Being Earnest,’’ Oscar Wilde’s Victorian-era comedy of manners, as a tale of American mobsters on the lam in Britain in the early 1930s.
But Wilde himself pretty much cornered the market on cleverness. So it’s not really Hyde Pierce’s notion of “Earnest’’ as a chronicle of not-so-innocents abroad that lends his Williamstown Theatre Festival production most of its fizz and sparkle, but rather the playwright’s cunningly constructed epigrams, deliberate non sequiturs, and deliciously nonsensical plot.
In other words, for all the fedoras, guns, and rat-a-tat-tat patter, this is not “WildeFellas.” It’s recognizably, and thankfully, Oscar.
That’s not to say there isn’t considerable enjoyment to be had in hearing Wilde’s arch dialogue about what constitutes gentlemanly behavior spoken by Cagney-esque tough guys in dese-dem-dose vernacular rather than by histrionic fops in plummy British tones. (Even tough guys, it turns out, like cucumber sandwiches.)
Among other things, this “Earnest’’ reminds us how mannered the speech of movie gangsters often is, not to mention the elaborate diction of Damon Runyon’s streetwise rogues. It’s as if even the criminal class can’t escape the insecure colonial urge to emulate the English upper crust.
Apart from a few nips and tucks, primarily to make the play a bit shorter, Hyde Pierce has not altered Wilde’s script — with respect to the spoken words, that is. The atmospherics are another matter. There, he mines to the hilt the possibilities of culture clash onstage and cognitive dissonance in the audience.
As an actor, Hyde Pierce is a master of comic timing, wordless expressivity, and sight gags (think of his portrayal of Niles Crane on “Frasier”), and he shows similar strengths as a director. In this “Earnest,’’ socially awkward silences stretch into menacing staredowns; a well-bred young woman suddenly brandishes a shovel as a weapon against her presumed rival; a bodyguard administers pat-downs to a room’s inhabitants whenever it is entered by Lady Bracknell (Tyne Daly), the forbidding head of an American crime family that is now living in London.
Daly makes a suitably steely Lady Bracknell. The actress can generate hurricane force onstage when she wants to, as with her scarily intense, Tony Award-winning turn as Mama Rose in “Gypsy” a couple of decades ago. But she chooses to underplay Lady Bracknell. This deadly dowager is content to let her anxious underlings read and interpret the variety of don’t-tread-on-me messages she sends with her facial expressions, which range from frozen to furious.
Among those upon whom she trains her disapproving eye is Glenn Fitzgerald’s amusingly hangdog John Worthing, a.k.a. Ernest. John always seems just a beat behind. This presents a problem, given that he is leading a complicated double life. He calls himself Ernest when he’s in London, visiting his friend Algernon (Louis Cancelmi) and wooing Lady Bracknell’s daughter, Gwendolen (Amy Spanger). But when he is at his country house, where he lives with his young ward, Cecily (Helen Cespedes), and her governess, Miss Prism (a very funny Marylouise Burke), he goes by the name of Jack, while claiming he has a ne’er-do-well brother named Ernest.
It’s hard to blame him for this subterfuge; the poor fellow literally does not know who he is, having been left as an infant in a handbag at a London railway station 29 years earlier. Besides, his beloved Gwendolen, a tough-talking moll in Spanger’s witty performance, believes she will only be happy if she marries a man named Ernest. No Jacks need apply; she will accept no substitute.
Matters grow still more complicated when Algernon shows up at Jack’s country house, presents himself as Ernest, and begins romancing Cecily. Algernon may be a smooth-talking charmer in slicked-down hair, two-tone shoes, and shoulder holster, but the skilled Cancelmi (seen last fall at the Huntington Theatre Company as an Israeli agent who helps apprehend Adolf Eichmann in “Captors’’) makes him seem a fundamentally decent chap.
Despite that shoulder holster, words are the most frequently used lethal weapons in this production, and that’s as it should be. You’re likely to forget the gangster gimmick for long stretches, and simply settle in for the reliable pleasures of good old “Earnest.’’