“I am sick to death of cleverness,” complains Jack (Max Samuels) to Algernon (Ross Cowan). “Everybody is clever nowadays.” Yet it takes some cleverness to sustain the fictions these men create for themselves, in the milieu of blithe superficiality, artifice, and hypocrisy that is The Importance of Being Earnest. Portland Stage stages a classic take on Wilde’s classic satire for one more weekend, in a stylish production directed by Christopher Grabowski.
The two would-be Earnests, Jack and Algernon, perform their clever patter in locales made spacious and luxurious by set/lighting designer Stephen Jones. Jack visits Algernon at a flat done up in dark wood, lilies in a vase, and ivory upholstered loveseats, and there proposes to Algie’s cousin Gwendolen (Allie Freed). When Algernon invites himself to Jack’s summer home, he finds there exceedingly green squares of privet and creeping primrose, a shadow-dappled patio, and Jack’s lovely ward Cecily (Tonya Ingerson).
The men themselves, just as elegantly put together, are a game study in contrasts. Algernon, in his purple vest and gold-paisley smoking, is loose, grinning, and floppily licentious, while Jack, in a sharply cut navy suit, is angular, measured and reed-like. Both separately and together, these friends move through the world in dancerly fashion. The two play a lunge-y bit of keep-away with a cigarette case. Jack, anticipating his proposal to Gwendolen, points one foot behind him like a ballet hero about to spring. Algernon tumbles leg-over-leg across the love-seat, and, anticipating his subterfuge in the country, trips up the stairs with a dulcet little twirl. The fingers of both men hang with perfect poise over the arms of their chairs.
The women for whom they dissemble are dynamic and brightly differentiated onstage. As Algernon’s beloved, Tonya Ingerson’s Cecily has a refreshing irreverence, punctuated by bursts of irrepressible, unaffected laughter. And as the more socially constructed Gwendolen, it’s a pleasure to see on PSC’s stage local actor Allie Freed, who’s given such compelling performances in Bare Portland’s devised works. In Earnest, she shows her more classical chops as she delivers Gwendolyn’s intricate stream of self-interest and affectations precisely and fluently, with nuanced inflection and, when called for, a saturated dose of saccharine.
As for the formidable Lady Bracknell, enforcer of social hypocrisies and wrench in the young people’s romantic plans, Elizabeth West makes her no campy grotesque of a matriarch, but rather robustly wry, deep-voiced, and dry as a bone — the better to show the absurdity of her social dicta. And Susan Knight performs a wonderfully crisp Miss Prism, whose voice nevertheless trails winningly upward into her barely-veiled affections for Reverend Chasuble (Christopher Holt). She’s part of an especially fun scene of triangulated subtext between Prism, Cecily, and Holt’s fine, gently yearning Chasuble.
Though the pace of the action and pick-ups could be ratcheted up a notch (the show’s run-time, with two intermissions, comes in at just over two and a half hours), Grabowski’s winking direction gives us an abundance of angled delivery, graceful mugging, and even some impressive endurance dialogue through mouthfuls of muffins.
“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing,” as Gwendolyn quips, and Portland Stage luxuriates in it.
The Importance of Being Earnest | By Oscar Wilde; directed by Christopher Grabowski | Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave in Portland | Through February 17 | www.portlandstage.org