We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Last year, when playwright Moisés Kaufman directed the electrifying New York production of his stage documentary, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, he was fairly rigorous about keeping things dry.
With a script drawn from court transcripts, newspaper accounts, letters, diary entries, Wilde’s published writings, commentary by such Wildean contemporaries as George Bernard Shaw, and a smidgen or two of analysis by historians, the author appeared to be aiming for a mix of drama and doctoral dissertation in his chronicle of a great literary figure brought to grief by “the love that dare not speak its name.”
Interestingly, in putting the play on its feet, Kaufman didn’t try to puff up its dramatic quotient; he briskly reinforced all the evening’s most academic notions. The facts, said his spoken footnotes and debate-society format, were being laid before audiences with the sort of precision in which misty-eyed emotionalism had no place. He allowed no special pleading, either by the central character or anyone else. In fact, the actor who played Wilde in New York was remarkably restrainedalmost affectlessin his delivery of the celebrated author’s epigrams on aesthetics and morality. Flamboyance of feeling, when exhibited at all, came from Wilde’s chief accuser, Queensbury, who raged like a madman about the affair his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was having with Victorian society’s most notorious aesthete.
In its archival approach to drama and its use of evidential methods more usually associated with cinema, Gross Indecency qualified in New York as a decidedly odd viewing experience, albeit a rewarding one. It was arid, intellectually vibrant, and alsoperhaps because it never stooped to courting tearssurprisingly moving.
At Studio Theatre, where the play is receiving its area premiere, John Going’s handsome but less precisely calibrated staging allows a certain moistness to infect the playwright’s argument early on, and in no time at all, the whole conceit goes damp.
In this mounting, newspaper headlines that practically scream to be barked are instead emoted. Hypocrisy is underlined. Diary entries, intoned in a manner appropriate for Ally McBeal voice-overs, come across as gossipy asides when they ought to be offering sober insights into the mind-set of trial participants. And with actor Max Robinson posturing as an increasingly self-pitying Wilde in almost exactly the way you’d expect of him if he were performing in a one-man hagiography like The Importance of Being Oscar, the central character offers so few surprises that he might as well not be present.
In short, a script that makes a fetish of clinical objectivity has been decorated with all manner of affectation in this production, not to mention with gorgeously burnished wood flooring, projected photos, and warm lighting that suggests an evening of storytelling by a hearth. Not surprisingly, the author’s scholarly rigor pretty much flies out the window.
There are compensating pleasures, to be sure. The abandonment of a pose of academic distance allows the audience to savor connections it might otherwise deem irrelevant. Listening to Wilde as he plays linguistic games with court officialsat one point he promises something on his “word as an English gentleman” to a lawyer who’s unaware that he’s Irishyou’d be hard-pressed not to think of that current public figure who got caught splitting legal hairs while denying sexual involvement with an acolyte. Hubris, you note to yourself as Wilde picks his way through a semantic minefield trying to outwit his puritanical opponents with clever turns of phrase, looks the same whether it’s political or poetical.
But once you’ve registered the Clinton-Wilde connection, there’s no reasonable place to run with it. The devastation visited on Wilde for what Victorian society regarded as sexual misconducta sentence of hard labor that destroyed his health, ended his career, and left him both a pauper and a social pariahis unlikely to befall the president, no matter how fervently he’s denounced by detractors. And a genius for bouncing back from political misfortunes is hardly comparable to the creative genius of one of modern literature’s most nimble thinkers and phrasemakers. The connection is a dead end and a distractionat best a footnote to a footnoteand the fact that it occurs to you at all is an indication that Kaufman’s central argumentthat Wilde’s persecution was as much about differing views on aesthetics as about sexis getting shortchanged.
Which is not to suggest that Studio has a calamity on its handswith an extended run already announced before opening night, that result was never likelyonly that in this incarnation, Gross Indecency seems neither distinctive nor unusual. Of course, to the folks lining up for tickets, that has to count as a disappointment. Any show about Wilde that feels commonplace, after all, has missed something crucial.
Kaufman, it should be noted, hasn’t missed a trick. He’s found ways to incorporate dialogue from Wilde’s plays into otherwise prosaic trial testimony, and he’s discovered excuses for applying descriptive passages from The Picture of Dorian Gray to Wilde’s beloved Bosie (played as an impetuously petulant twit by Desmond Dutcher). Kaufman also articulates tricky aesthetic debates through court arguments and finds unexpected vantage pointsShaw’s being perhaps the most startlingfrom which to suggest that a vast array of sharply divergent perspectives on Wilde’s legal debacle might have some purchase on the truth. Even if viewed as nothing more than a collection of intriguing data, the script would qualify as a compelling documentinclusive and surprisingly nonjudgmental, despite its obvious sympathies for its central character.
It’s hard to say whether the director sees Kaufman’s purposefully dispassionate approach as a drawback or if he’s simply so enamored of dramatic technique that he can’t bring himself to leave straightforward material alone. With assists from talented designers and a mostly fine cast, he’s found ways to sentimentalize an evening that hasn’t a romantic notion in its head. He’s also turned it awfully conventional. Confronted with a format in which narrators are forever interjecting footnotes and supplemental data into courtroom scenes, Going keeps varying the method of those interjections, as if trying to integrate them smoothly into a dramatic whole.
Ordinarily, I’d be inclined to applaud any attempt at onstage seamlessness, but in this case, the interruptions are specifically designed to break up the flow that Going is so determined to maintain. The citations of sources are there to remind audiences that comparatively little dramatic license is being takenthat these arguments took place in precisely the words we’re hearing, as when a narrator introduces a speech by the father of Wilde’s beloved Bosie with the phrase “from a letter written by Queensbury to his son.” The effect of tarting up the delivery of such pronouncements with an actorish flourish and, say, a projected photo of the real Queensbury, to whom the actor on stage bears little resemblance, is mostly to call unnecessary attention to the staging itself, rather than to the content Kaufman has assembled.
On occasion, the entertainment value Going and his actors are so intent on bringing to the telling of their tale actually undermines what’s being told. Take the top of Act 2a re-enactment of an interview Kaufman conducted with a college professor about whether Wilde would have characterized himself as a homosexual. Jeff Lofton, playing Kaufman, is subdued as he asks simple, direct questions, but his interview subject, played vividly for laughs by Christopher Borg, comes across as a thoroughly fatuous egghead, impugned as much by the fuzzy brown turtleneck he’s wearing as by the gulping, self-important manner he brings to his pronouncements. He’s a brightly funny comic creation, and if he weren’t supposed to be making one of the evening’s most crucial points, he’d be an unalloyed delight.
Alas, what the professor is saying about the Victorian era’s understanding of the word “homosexual,” and about the term’s roots in medical pathology, gets entirely consumed by the comic way in which the actor has been directed to say it. So a small gale of laughter greets the assertion that Wilde, living in an age before the term “homosexual” had ever been used as a noun, would likely have drawn a distinction between a man who was “homosexual” and one who was simply attracted to other men. All the audience hears is that the distinction sounds ridiculousyet in that seeming contradiction lies the heart of three trials’ worth of argument. Other points get similarly lost in different sorts of shuffles.
Directorial missteps notwithstanding, performances by Studio’s nine-member cast are mostly capable enough, and sometimes more than that, with H. Michael Walls making an effectively apoplectic Queensbury, while Steven Hauck and James Slaughter are nicely matched as opposing barristers. Considerably less effective, unfortunately, is Robinson’s Wilde, whose speech patterns suggest a mouth filled with at least as many marbles as epigrams. The actor cuts a strangely nebbishy figure at the play’s center, sometimes fading into the polished woodwork and letting the lawyers command center stage. Though he’s been handed most of the script’s best quips, he isn’t really much fun except when he’s countering the dimwitted questions put to him in his first trial.
In fairness, the material lets him down thereafter. Documentary structure does not, after all, lend itself to dramatic climaxes, and in this instance, it’s almost inevitable that Wilde’s second and third trials should prove less compelling than his first. He’s doomed from the moment he’s forced to concede that courtrooms and flippancy don’t mix. Being flippant was Wilde’s stock in trade. He raised it to an art form, used it to mock philistines, and stumbled only when he was forced to abandon it in battle with an establishment that could neither understand nor accept the centrality of art and beauty to his existence. The lawyers on stage look as baffled as their counterparts must have in real life when he announces, in all seriousness, “Art is the supreme reality.” Ironically, that’s probably the least flippant axiom he ever uttered.CP