With Oscar Wilde's unrelentingly witty comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, Portland Center Stage presents its second, unexpectedly relevant, classic of the season: First came Guys Dolls, set in New York in the midst of financial collapse. Now we get a romantic comedy in which two men lie about their identity to court much younger women, written by a playwright who was publicly tried for his affair with a young man 16 years his junior. Sound familiar?
Director Chris Coleman is uninterested in scandalous age-inappropriate relationships or the much-discussed and possibly spurious homoerotic subtexts of Wilde's bon mots. He focuses instead on the superficiality of the play, which, for all the wit of its rapid-fire patter, is in essence as silly a story as any of Shakespeare's identity comedies: A man who was found as a baby in a handbag discovers his parentage in time to get married. The plot is just a prop for the gags.
To emphasize the hollow staginess of the play, the set is scaled down, with carpeted paneling imposing a severe proscenium over a trio of low walls. Costumes are bright and elaborate, with lots of tails and plumage, and one actor (Todd Van Voris) plays the butlers of both Algernon's city apartment and Jack's country house.
The artificiality of the design goes hand in hand with showy overacting by the cast, in a style similar to that of 30 Rock, with frequent direct address to the audience. This works, for the most part. James Knight (Algernon) seems to be taking his cues from Neil Patrick Harris' performance on How I Met Your Mother, Nikki Coble (Cecily) plays her batty, wild-eyed naif with evident glee, and Jill Tanner is terrifying as the tyrannical Lady Bracknell. But Matthew Waterson, as Jack, the play's amorous orphan protagonist, seems uncomfortable with the hamming: He stands stiffly, doesn't know what do with his hands, glares into space with the haughtiness of a high-school Hamlet and shouts a lot. He's so damn earnest that it's hard to care about the circumstances of his birth or the difficulty of his courtship. So we root for lying, salacious Algernon. It's comedy, buddy—lighten up!
Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays and alternating Saturdays, noon Thursdays. Closes March 29. $30-$66.50.