Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Opening Set: Lucy Boyle’s The Blue Deep and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

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Blythe Danner in The Blue Deep. Photo T Charles Erickson.
Blythe Danner in The Blue Deep. Photo T Charles Erickson.

The Blue Deep (June 27 – July 8)
by Lucy Boyle
Directed by Bob Balaban
Scene Design, Andrew Boyce & Takeshi Kata
Costume Design, Mimi O’Donnell
Lighting Design, Matthew Richards
Sound Design, John Gromada

Becky Ann Baker – Roberta
Blythe Danner – Grace Miller
Jack Gilpin – Charlie
Heather Lind – Lila Miller
Finn Wittrock – Jamie

The Importance of Being Earnest (June 26 – July 14)
by Oscar Wilde
directed by David Hyde Pierce

Marylouise Burke – Miss Prism
Louis Cancelmi – Algernon Moncrieff
Helen Rita Cespedes – Cecily Cardew
Sean Cullen – Lane
Tyne Daly – Lady Bracknell
Glenn Fitzgerald – Jack Worthing
Paul Anthony McGrane – Merriman
Amy Spanger – Gwendolen Fairfax
Henry Stram as Chasuble
with Charlotte Bydwell, Julian Cihi, Alexander Seife, and Ariana Seigel.

The set of Lucy Boyle’s The Blue Deep, invites us to join Grace Miller at her Sag Harbor poolside, a pleasant enough scene, perhaps in some ways the reduced modern equivalent of the garden terrace of Algernon’s country house in The Importance of Being Earnest. Both of these plays which open the Williamstown Theatre Festival are about leisured families and are set, except for the first act of Earnest, in their comfortable country settings. At least two of Shakespeare and Company’s season openers are about families as well, Parasite Drag, and King Lear. It’s a wonder the Berkshire Visitors Bureau hasn’t started a family-oriented promotion over them. Certainly none of the families on view at WTF are in anywhere near the parlous danger of the unwholesome midwesterners of Parasite Drag. In the one instance where bullets fly, we know they’re only blanks, like everything else in that particular production. In The Blue Deep, on the other hand, there is breakage, first a beer bottle, then a cookie jar. A yet greater peril comes from the Super Glue used to repair the jar.

What more fitting way to begin a Williamstown summer than in the back yard of a modest home in the Hamptons, not terribly unlike many here in the Berkshires. Grace, as we learn, is only marginally occupied with work at the moment, her art gallery, which is being managed by a dynamic young woman from Princeton, but she is constantly busy, from breakfast to phone calls, to exercise in her pool and the elaborate accoutrements it requires. Grace is well on in years, but she is fit, thanks to the considerable effort and expense she puts into it. She also knows her priorities—a happy state which enables her to cut short an obnoxious acquaintance who repeatedly phones her, but which rather less happily inspires annoyance, when her daughter Lila arrives unannounced from the West Coast, with her wardrobe, such as it is, stuffed into plastic bags. Previously, the only real disorder in this environment was a tree blown over by a storm, which Grace’s landscaper had neglected to clean up. After a threat from Grace, Jamie, the handsome son of the landscaper turns up to deal with the delinquent tree, but after Lila’s arrival, so that a promising romance begins to develop.

Just as the setting is familiar, so are the people: Grace, the well-off lady who runs a gallery, possibly as a vanity business; Lila, the aspiring writer whose job creating content for an LA-based shopping blog has evaporated with the blog’s demise, along with her cohabitation with a young man who later joins the callers on Grace’s phone; Jamie, who also studies Environmental Science at Yale; Roberta and Charlie, two old friends, who are house guests, Charlie, the unprepossessing long-time friend of Grace’s deceased husband and his obnoxious but well-intentioned Australian wife, Roberta.

Heather Lind and Blythe Danner in The Blue Deep. Photo T. Charles Erickson.
Heather Lind and Blythe Danner in The Blue Deep. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

Grace has given Lila’s room to her house-guests and is not prepared to make any changes. She makes it clear that Lila is not welcome and continues to treat her in a moderately beastly manner. We are surprised to observe that Lila has a long-term friendship with the visitors as well and in fact has more conversation and experience to share with them than her mother does. Grace’s behavior is deplorable and doubtless plays a pernicious role in the creative and professional blockage of her daughter. We all know how damaging an intolerant or hostile parent can be, especially to a young adult of an artistic bent. However, Lila, in spite of her troubles, seems surprisingly resilient in the face of her mother’s rejection, which is not as ferocious or devastating as it could be. Lucy Boyle’s play, perhaps as a result of its rather accomplished obliqueness, never follows issues like these to the end.

What happens? We learn that the demise of Grace’s husband is sufficiently recent that the wounds have not healed, mourning, that is. Lila takes a great interest in a hideous Chinese cookie jar in the form of a yellow cat. Grace pressures Lila to leave soon. While the older generation are off at a party, where they will supposedly spend the night, Lila gets a visit from Jamie, which develops into the beginnings of intense love-making, when the “grown-ups” return home unexpectedly and a beer bottle is broken. Young man hides under a chaise longue. Mother is hard on him until she learns that he’s studying at Yale. Next day, Grace and her friends indulge in a pot-smoking session, to the amusement of Lila and friend. It gets out of hand (why is it,  in life and in art, that only the young can enjoy weed with dignity?), and the cookie jar is broken. Grace and Lila take an exceptional interest in the dusty contents of the jar, trying to gather it up under the deck. Grace puts her back out in the process, showing her first signs of physical vulnerability. Lila looks after her. They try to repair the jar and manage to glue themselves together. Jamie helps them get apart. Mother does an exceptionally good deed for daughter, over the telephone. Sometimes mother knows best. Enough said, in case you decide to go see the play.

I should add that Lila’s literary ambitions are the occasion of some passages of heightened language, dream narration, and scenes that transcend realism — which weren’t half bad, I thought.

Some friends at the show quite disliked the play, finding it boring and pointless. I found it decidedly lightweight, but I was not bored. I quite enjoyed it, mostly because of the polish of Bob Balaban’s direction and the superb cast, above all Blythe Danner, who returns to WTF as Grace after a twelve-year absence. Pace and interaction were impeccable throughout. There was not one false move. Ms. Danner gave a finely balanced and finely honed performance, with elegant gestures and many striking and even significant details. She maintained a careful balance between the various admirable, deplorable, and ridiculous aspects of her character without losing our sympathy. The rest of the cast were excellent, above all Heather Lind as Lila, who showed complete confidence and presence throughout the many moods and situations she had to portray.

Perhaps The Blue Deep has not other reason to exist than as a vehicle for Blythe Danner. If it’s ever performed again, and I see an announcement, I fear I’ll confuse it with Terence Rattigan’s far more substantial play, The Deep Blue Sea. I’ll have to remember to watch out for that. In its favor I can say that it effectively portrayed the ability of close relatives to heal and forgive — not that real people accomplish that quite as easily or as quickly.

Louis Cancelmi, Sean Cullen, and Glenn Fitzgerald in a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo T. Charles Erickson.
Louis Cancelmi, Sean Cullen, and Glenn Fitzgerald in a scene from The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

Its companion piece, Wilde’s classic, The Importance of Being Earnest, is all about family as well. Family blood runs like a network of underground streams throughout the farcical deceptions and misunderstandings, and all the glistering epigrams. Some relations are all too apparent, while others remain a mystery until the end. The big question in my mind, as I went into the theater, was whether the idea of transforming the characters into 1930’s gangster types was as bad as it seemed on paper? Every bit. The perpetrator, David Hyde Pierce, got a few laughs from some unexpected  twists of meaning here and there, but that wasn’t enough to justify the gangster suits, fedoras, and effortful attempts at the accents of Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney in their famous films and their many successors.

The loss, on the other hand, was considerable. As far as we are concerned today, the clichés of gangster movies are nothing but cartoon gags and characters. Wilde’s original, although liberally tapped from a comic tradition stretching from Congreve to Feydeau, made some reference to the world around him — a world which is more concrete for us today as a historical reality than Hollywood’s transformation of Prohibition-era gangsterland. In addition to holding up a highly-polished mirror to London society with the epigrams in which his contemporaries would have recognized the author’s own voice, Wilde made much of the young lovers plot familiar from his models. As tired as it is, and no matter how much Wilde undercut it with irony, if its well-managed, it never fails to involve us to some extent. Louis Cancelmi, in this production, created an exceptionally sympathetic Algernon. We’re really very happy to see him get the girl in the end — most charmingly and interestingly played by Helen Rita Cespedes. What a let-down when he answers her with his uncouth gangland accent! Wilde himself was playing an improbable trick on us, but he let us believe in the lovers. David Hyde Pierce leaves us only a caricature of a type we’ve seen hundreds of times on television. The gangster shtick might be a fun joke in an undergraduate production, but to assemble an equity cast and to charge people real money to come see it is a bit much.

The débâcle was to some extent redeemed by its polished execution. There can be not doubt that Mr. Pierce is a director of superior ability. Expert timing and some assured performances from not only Cancelmi and Cespedes, but from Paul Anthony McGrane as Merriman and Tyne Daly as Lady Bracknell gave the proceedings some respectability. Glenn Fitzgerald’s Jack Worthing was heavy and effortful, as if he — entirely legitimately — didn’t really believe in what he was doing. The mobsterish twist on his constant humorless preoccupation didn’t really work. Amy Spanger’s Gwendolen was a standard off-the-rack moll characterization, a gross reduction of what Wilde gave her to work with. Marylouise Burke’s Miss Prism offered much irritation and little amusement. Henry Stram as Chasuble offered the only English accent of the evening in a very smooth, entertaining, but familiar treatment. The other country people, Cecliy and Miss Prism,  were free of the gangster accents, reflecting the protected nature of the establishment. A touch of it came to Cecily, however, as she bickered with Gwendolen. Jack’s accent, decidedly underworld as Earnest in Act I, was mitigated considerably after he arrived in the country under his real name.

Not a lot of people around me were laughing, but in the theater as a whole it picked up in the second act. The show was funniest when Wilde’s epigrams sailed through the silliness on their own. The Importance of Being Earnest is excessively familiar to us today as it has been for generations, from West End productions with top actors to the local high school, perhaps as far as Normal, Illinois, but it just won’t die. The art of the epigram may be dead, but Wilde’s still enchant us today. Mr. Pierce is sorely mistaken if he thinks Earnest needs his ministrations, gangsterish or otherwise, to come back to a life it hasn’t yet left.


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