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Many and broad are the laughs in Arena Stage’s The Importance of Being Earnest, but it’s the spit take that really defines Everett Quinton’s production. No, honestly—a spit take. And with afternoon tea, too. Right there in the first scene.

It’s considerate, really, that early commitment to low comedy: Quinton’s signaling—one might say semaphoring, but only at the risk of being thought unkind—that he won’t be troubling audiences with the wit and sophistication that make the average Oscar Wilde comedy such a chore. Thus alerted, patrons unprepared to invest two-and-a-half hours in what amounts to a three-act, Victorian-themed Three Stooges skit can spend the rest of Act 1 calculating the shortest path to the exits.

It may be, if we may be permitted to retreat briefly and give Quinton the benefit of a vanishingly small doubt or two, that no director could have done much with an Earnest mounted in Arena’s cavernous Fichandler Stage: Wilde’s epigrams lose something of their easy, impish charm when they’re shouted across a drawing room the size of a hangar. It’s rather a pretty drawing room, one must admit, though even design sophistication ultimately seems a demerit here; the gaudy Orientalia of Zack Brown’s Act 3 set and the bordello-curtain bustles he’s whipped up for his ladies would be a triumph in any other production, but at Arena their effect is alloyed somewhat by the realization that they’re cleverer than anything happening on or in them.

It may also be that no director could have done anything with the ill-modulated performances of Michael Skinner and Claudia Robinson, though Quinton might at least have pointed out the futility of trying to make the jokes discernible to subscribers who have neglected to come to the theater.

But no: Skinner’s uncommonly bellicose Jack Worthing and Robinson’s unusually grating Lady Bracknell are only the most vulgar excesses in a dispiritingly vulgar evening. A violently repressed governess (the usually classy Helen Hedman) all but orgasms in the presence of the parish priest; a fashionable young society lady (the usually subtle Susan Lynskey) switches her bustle as though the bachelor she’s wooing is a baboon in need of a nonverbal cue; one of the play’s two sparring gadabouts (who remembers?) stuffs his mouth full of muffin, the better to deliver a spray of crumbs along with his next tart remark. So much for the notion that Earnest’s characters concern themselves with style above all.

And so much for the notion that Wilde’s laughs don’t need underlining, that his comedy works best when the ensemble doesn’t feel the need to comment on it, that his sly social criticism lands most crisply when the subtext stays, well, sub the text. (Perishingly old-fashioned ideas, no doubt.) Quinton & Co. goose the material at practically every opportunity, winking at absurdities and smirking at attitudes that history’s wickedest playwright apparently hasn’t skewered efficiently enough for them. There are occasional lapses into tasteful understatement, and Ian Kahn’s Algernon actually has an infectious air of mischief about him, but these aberrances, like the sets and costumes, only point up the crassness of what surrounds them. Washington has seen some misbegotten Wilde in its day—that all-queer Earnest with the leather-daddy butler comes to mind—but with a relatively straightforward production of what’s supposed to be “the perfect play,” Arena’s managed to stage what may be the most perfectly witless show in town.

It would be nice to say that the American Century Theater has delivered surer, smarter dramatism with its latest dust-shrouded discovery and its standard handful of pocket change. But sometimes, tackling a heavyweight means getting dragged down the field a little—and if the company hasn’t quite gotten itself trampled by Clifford Odets’ Paradise Lost, it’s hardly triumphed, either.

Odets was the golden boy whose Golden Boy was among the fabled Group Theater’s landmark shows, a Broadway-favorite rabble-rouser whose left-wing politics never kept his work from resonating with a commercial audience. A righteous anger marked some of his most successful plays—Waiting for Lefty was one—and there’s rage simmering just under the surface of Paradise, too. But there’s real charity at the heart of this odd sprawl of a play, which watches one middle-class Everyfamily struggle to hold on to its self-respect as the Great Depression slouches heavily toward it, and hope, too, shows its snowy head toward the end. And good God, the characters! The play may be one big out-of-Eden allegory, a wake-up-won’t-you broadside targeting corrupt capitalism in an unjustly structured society, but its people are fascinatingly individual—even inhabited by the distinctly uneven lineup American Century has assembled.

Then again, even Arena might have trouble putting together a uniformly professional cast this size. The program lists 22 dramatis personae, with only four actors doubling roles; Act 1 is a veritable parade of faces, a cavalcade of characters who keep tumbling through the front door of the comfy Gordon household as if someone had pulled a clown car up to the curb outside. Leo is the soft-spoken, philosophical patriarch, earth mother Clara the sensible counterweight who sighs resignedly when he orders the German-born canary out of the house after news comes of Hitler’s rise to power. They’re an American-dreaming Adam and Eve, living blithely in their middle-class garden just before a rude financial awakening and a precipitous Fall into a world of want and pain. Sickly Julie, artsy Pearl, and sporty Ben are their children, and the family’s circle of friends—and eventual enemies—are all representative, too, standing in for the panoply of human strengths and weaknesses from charity and perseverance to greed and opportunism. And yet somehow they’re all interesting, each of them psychologically singular: It’s clear why Ben’s budding-gangster buddy, Kewpie, takes advantage of him and later of the increasing chaos in bread-line America, for instance, and it’s a little sad, too.

Which isn’t to say that the show works on every level—or even on most—in American Century’s frayed-at-the-edges staging. In pursuit of an American epic, Odets moves ambitiously and uncomfortably from grim O’Neillish realism to expressionist atmospherics—incantatory speeches, a glowering Cassandra figure in grease-stained coveralls, a pair of quasi-Shakespearean fools—that wouldn’t be out of place in Peer Gynt. The result is a bear of an evening, an intellectually interesting but ill-unified and overlong fusion of storytelling, polemic, and experimentation. And although DeAnna Duncan keeps the pace brisk and herds her forces capably enough, she’s been let down by her design team. Unpainted sections left Thomas B. Kennedy’s tatty set feeling unfinished on opening night, and though Kennedy and lighting designer Franklin Coleman were presumably meant to have been collaborating on that underwhelming trio of “otherworldly” effects, their contributions function so poorly together that they might have been working on two different shows.

Most performances are capable, one or two excruciating, and a handful occasionally surprising. Jason Lott’s jittery, manic-depressive Ben and David Ruffin’s quietly affecting Julie are sure, un-self-conscious portrayals, and there’s a slump-shouldered eloquence sometimes about Norman Aronovic’s Leo. (The mood dissipates, alas, when he proves unequal to the character’s big speeches.) Martha Karl makes a tartly funny Clara, and there’s something perplexingly hackle-raising about Joe Cronin’s Gus. He’s no villain, certainly, but he’s not in any way likable, either; still, you can’t look away.

It’s never entirely clear why Cronin’s anxiously grinning stamp collector (or Bernie Cohen’s vile-tempered business partner, or John C. Bailey’s ominous, angry Mr. Pike) seems to be living in the Gordon household—maybe it’s Odets’ unsubtle way of reminding us that individualist or not, we’re all of us afloat in the same ark, on the same treacherous waters.

What does come through, clear as day, as American Century brings the play home, is how clearly Odets saw the shoals our society keeps having to negotiate: “We cancel our experience,” one character observes—“it’s an American habit.” And granted, it’s a laggard America and a restive Germany at issue when Odets challenges the audience with “Who are we if we keep silent while they make the next war?”—but the question still lands with a queasy thud, doesn’t it?CP