It was irresponsible of Oscar Wilde to have had such a witty, driven mother—and in reckless bad taste to have conducted such an entertaining correspondence with her. This double indiscretion has led directly to Oscar & Speranza, a new play based on their letters, and the sheer awfulness of Trumpet Vine Theatre’s production of it argues for the immediate destruction of epistolary collections at universities everywhere.

Lest anyone think this assessment overly harsh, let me do what a decent critic normally avoids—describe with some specificity the ending of the play at hand. Oscar, having faced the public shame of trial, imprisonment, penury, syphilis, bad haircuts, and an American lecture tour, lies on his deathbed. This is sad, you think, but only momentarily, because then you are distracted as the draperies behind his bed sweep open, revealing a white-robed Speranza (who has predeceased him) enclosed in an enormous gilt frame à la Dorian Gray. She offers words of comfort, takes his hand, and ushers him across death’s threshold—to the swelling strains of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.

The grand and solemn campiness of this moment comes as something of a relief, actually, inspiring as it does the hope that director Steven Scott Mazzola remains in control of his faculties—that this usually sophisticated theatrical talent realized three-quarters of the way through the rehearsal period that Oscar & Speranza simply wasn’t salvageable, and that he thereupon threw both his hands and all of his visual metaphors in the air, not caring any longer where the latter came down.

That, at least, would help explain the frustrating, fragmented feel of the long, slow buildup to that last image—the muddled conceit, so curiously indecisive about whether it has full-blown scenes or merely staged readings in mind; the endless, pointless furniture-moving, which leaves you feeling as though you’ve seen more of stagehands than of stars; the teeth-grating annoyance of out-of-sync title cards, telling you that the moment at hand is taking place both in London and in Paris, and in more than one month.

What’s regrettable is that at the very core of C. Robert Holloway’s play is an intriguing notion—that it may have been the caustic, clever Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, as much as Walter Pater or any of the other usual Aesthete suspects, who inspired the divine Oscar’s finely tuned taste for epigrams (not to mention the fatal conviction that his own exquisite taste could trump society’s uglier instincts). The shift in focus from son to mother promises to make the tale of Wilde’s rise and fall worth telling again, and Holloway finds very real evidence for his argument in the crackling letters between Oscar and Speranza—plain “Jane” being too prosaic, too pedestrian a name for a highly educated Irishwoman who was “an eagle in my youth,” and who wrote rabble-rousing anti-English poetry under a nom de plume inspired, she claimed, by her direct descent from Dante.

And it works, to a degree and for a little while. For every ponderously dropped name—and every condescending authorial explanation of why said name has just been dropped, as though the audience must be too witless to figure out that “my friend Georgie” must be G.B. Shaw—there’s an offhand witticism, an elegant throwaway line from Speranza that skewers a person or a pretension nearly as neatly as something from the pen of her incomparable son.

But that “nearly” rapidly becomes more trouble than it’s worth: Holloway’s structure requires that mother and son amuse each other with tart, gossipy letters about the people in their circle, but when you bandy words with Oscar Wilde, you’re going to come away looking relatively inarticulate, even if you’re his brilliant mother. Sure enough, his wit quickly eclipses hers, and once the novelty of getting to know Speranza’s gifts wears off, the play becomes Oscar’s story—one others have told much better.

And so by the time the second act opens, with the revelation that the actor playing Oscar (Travis Michael Holder) has switched parts with the actress playing Speranza (Jo May), you’ll understand that Holloway is just trying to keep the latter from having to sit twiddling her thumbs as the action tracks Oscar’s imprisonment, exile, decline, and death. Giving May the scenes that find Oscar at his lowest, jailed and reviled, turns out to be something of a happy chance—she’s actually quite affecting, dignified and understated in her prison gray. But there’s no disguising, especially after poor Speranza expires while Oscar languishes behind bars, that the play doesn’t really have a second act, and that everyone involved is just treading water until it’s time for the great man himself to kick off.

Ill Met by Moonlight is a more established Irish adventure, and it’s a degree or two more successful in the Washington Stage Guild production that opened last weekend at the Source Theatre space on 14th Street. Michéal Mac Liammóir’s haunted-house fantasy is chock-full of spirits (both kinds), swagger (the author was a contemporary and friend of Noel Coward’s) and psycho-babble, which would make it lots of fun in the hands of a first-rate cast.

Only about half of Stage Guild’s assembled forces fit that bill, though—which makes for some rough going; Ill Met is an old-fashioned three-acter, and most audiences will be frightfully fidgety long before the second intermission, not least because Morgan Duncan’s direction doesn’t do much to smooth out the connections between the play’s comic-eccentric bits and the strangely serious psychological games it wants to play in its latter stages.

That’s after the newlywed actress Catherine (a genuinely creepy Tricia McCauley, eyes aglitter and hands curled into talons) has gone walking after midnight and come back pretty much crazy—or possessed, if the butler (Brian McMonagle) is to be believed. Seems the manor Brugh ne Gealai, home to the famous folklorist Professor Sebastien Prosper (Conrad Feininger) and his adoring daughter Susan (Kathleen Coons), was built on a fairy circle—and the spirits are a tad upset.

The script is littered with fond in-jokes about writers from Shakespeare to Joyce, and there are genuinely unsettling undertones in the language Mac Liammóir gives Catherine in Act 3, when she finally confronts Prosper with the full depth of the fey anger that’s behind her possession. (Let’s just say we’re not talking gossamer-winged sprites here, nor little guys in green felt hats.) But the play is so conspicuously well-made, so predictably patterned with its subplot about Susan’s romance with a tongue-tied aristocrat, that everything past Act 1 is a long march toward an awfully obvious conclusion.

With material like that, it’s up to the cast and the director to keep things entertaining for the audience that’s doing the hiking—and though Feininger and McMonagle each have their moments (and Coons is positively delightful), the Stage Guild’s production isn’t anywhere near bright and tight enough to keep anyone fully engaged. See Ill Met by Moonlight and Oscar & Speranza back to back, in fact, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking that just maybe, at last, the luck of the Irish has finally run out. CP

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