BWW Review: Oscar Wilde Proves Perennial Master of Wit
Portland Stage's antidote to the winter doldrums is a new production of Oscar Wilde's incandescent classic of comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. More than a century after its creation, this quintessential comedy of manners proves a delicious and refreshing confection of perfectly crafted playwriting. For well over two hours Wilde regales his viewers with one bon motsafter another, with pithy and poetic, wise and urbane, cynical and silly dialogue that delights with its energy and acuity.
And all this is on display in Portland Stage's mounting, though what is curiously lacking in Christopher Grabowski's concept and staging is a sense of period style, so vital to a work that is as iconic as any in depicting the upper class British mores of the late Victorian era. Grabowski's take is often anachronistically contemporary, and while the characters and story remain amusing, the effervescence of Wilde's inimitable writing and vision lose much of their sparkle. This is seen especially in the physicality and dialogue delivery of the actors - far too casual, modern, and mugged - and in the overlay of gags and campy moments, that, however amusing, is incongruous. Moreover, Grabowski's pacing is several beats too slow so that the breathless repartee that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat - barely recovering from one salvo when another is fired - also dissipates.
The casting is solid and faithful to Grabowski's concept. Ross Cowan succeeds best as Algernon, capturing the character's incurable self-indulgence and frivolity, and Max Samuels makes a suitable foil as his friend Jack. Ally Freed and Tonya Ingerson portray the rival ladies, Gwendolyn and Cecily; Freed needs more mordent cattiness and more ramrod fiber - she is lady Bracknell's daughter, after all, and Ingerson, while sweetly manipulative, lacks some of the blithe air-headedness of the character. Susan Knight as Miss Prism and Christopher Holt as reverend Chasuble make an appropriately quirky pair who is ever so central to the plot. Grace Bauer as the housekeeper Mrs. Merriman, and Al D'Andrea as the butler Lane seem servants from a different play. In the pivotal role of Lady Bracknell, Elizabeth West, at least n opening night when she appeared to be struggling with lines, did not deliver the forceful performance necessary to create the dramatic tension. This woman is a Gorgon, who inserts terror into a room with her presence. She is overbearing, opinionated, and irrefutably in charge, but on this occasion the portrayal was pale and lacked stature. For this critic's taste, the role gains in armored flintiness and authority when played by a man - a tradition that has solid history.
As always, Portland Stage's physical production is a feast for the eyes. Stephen Jones' set and lighting designs are elegant evocations of the era with Algernon's flat offering a nod to the Pre-Raphaelite style often associated with Wilde, and the elaborate scenery morphs fluidly into the three locales. Kenisho Kelly's costumes compliment the color scheme and silhouette, though the absence of any wigs at all (and short modern hair styles) for Cecily and Lady Bracknell on opening night was strangely jarring. Seth Asa Sendel delivers a balanced soundscape and Stage Manager Shane Van Vliet provides an expert anchoring hand.
Despite my caveats about this production, The Importance of Being Earnestis such a treasure of the stage that any opportunity to revel in its many pleasures should not be missed!
Photos courtesy of Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke, photographer
The Importnace of Being Earnestruns from January 22-February 17, 2019, at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, ME 207- 774-046a www.portlandstage.org