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Produced by the Rose Organization at the Round House Theater to July 30
Nothing suited Oscar Wilde less than being constrained. He ignored his era’s taste for sentiment to pen the most sparkling English comedy of the 1800s; courted notoriety by strolling Piccadilly Circus in a silk sailor’s blouse and knee britches while brandishing a lily; and ensured his own disgrace by taking his lover’s father to court when he might easily have brazened out a public scandal. Wilde’s genius was for being larger than life.
Which may be why the sight of Wilde’s massive impersonator, Brian Hemmingsen, squeezing himself into an Edwardian armchair three sizes too small for his elegantly tuxedoed bulk, is so painfully evocative in The Importance of Being Oscar. The man simply doesn’t fit. Striding around the Clark Street Playhouse’s stage, he’s hugely conspicuous—his mouth a black-outlined slash of scarlet in a face chalked white, his eyelids painted green to match the trademark carnation in his lapel. The only hints of understatement he allows himself are a feathery touch of rouge at the cheeks and the delicate way he has of sipping absinthe. So when he crams himself into the chair, he seems cruelly diminished; reduced and rendered awkward in a way that suits him not at all.
Nothing the actor says in the course of Michéal MacLiammóir’s one-man show felt quite as telling as that image on opening night—a situation that’s likely to have changed by the time this review hits the street. Hemmingsen—who is not merely artistic director of the Washington Shakespeare Company, but also performs most nights in the troupe’s The Normal Heart, and personally built and painted much of its new Clark Street home in the last few weeks—was suffering from flu (and, no doubt, exhaustion) at the premiere. He gamely played with script in hand, and managed to finesse the evening. But the depth he brought to the role three years ago at Scena Theater surfaced only in isolated flashes.
Perhaps for that reason, the script’s structure was more evident than usual, with the central figure’s incessant shifting between narrative and interpretive functions highlighted. MacLiammóir designed Oscar in 1960 as a personal performance piece and made quite a name for himself touring in it. Unlike most one-person shows, the evening requires its player to be—virtually simultaneously—a stand-in for its title character, a dramatic interpreter of his works, and an impartial historian (who notes, for instance, that Wilde could never have made his reputation for wit in his native Ireland because no one there could have brooked his remarks “without trying to cap or capsize them”).
Hemmingsen and director Robert McNamara have devised some reasonably clever staging tricks to camouflage the shifts. The actor strides offstage occasionally and returns reciting poetry as if in a lecture hall. He poses before a portrait of himself during a recap of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and plays a severe Lady Bracknell while seated on a straight-backed divan that somehow seems to become the overbearing dowager’s skirt. In the evening’s second half, which recounts Wilde’s public humiliation and imprisonment in Reading Gaol for homosexuality, he reads from tattered manuscripts while imprisoned in a spotlight. (Unfortunately, a nifty lighting trick that allows the Wilde portrait to age during this passage is undercut because Wilde’s cell is placed so close by that its illumination interferes with the light on the painting.)
None of this is as important to the evening as the hauteur with which Hemmingsen announces that Wilde arrived in the U.S. “disappointed with the Atlantic Ocean,” and told customs officials he had “nothing to declare but my genius.” Or the smirk with which he repeats Wilde’s crack that the barrel-chested, flannel-shirted Colorado miners who yawned through his lectures on beauty and art were the best-dressed men he’d ever seen. At such moments, it doesn’t even matter that he transposes two letters in the nickname Wilde gave his beloved, and makes the inconstant Bosie sound as if he hails from Idaho.
In Summer Share, the second and more intriguing of the two musicals that make up “Romance Romance,” Sam peers intently at Monica, with whom he’s contemplating having an affair. Their trusting spouses sleep soundly in adjoining bedrooms, and as Sam croons, to a lilting Keith Herrmann melody, of a frustration he knows has beseiged Monica as much as it has him (“I know what happens in a marriage/There are words he doesn’t say….”), the tension is palpable.
Then, alas, he gets specific and the weakness of Barry Harman’s lyrics asserts itself. Harman’s not a bad writer, but when constricted by the need to rhyme he tends to fall back on garden-variety insights and platitudes. Sam has to elaborate, of course, or the moment won’t amount to much, but as he does, it amounts to much less than you’d hoped.
So does Summer Share, an updated version of Jules Renard’s turn-of-the-century play Pain de Ménage (“The Bread of Marriage”), now set in a house in the Hamptons. The adaptors require Sam and Monica’s sleeping spouses to materialize occasionally to lay odds on whether an assignation will take place, but mostly the flirting and agonizing of this moonlit night is all this minimusical has going for it. Sweet-tenored Mark Aldrich makes Sam an appealing suburban schlub—you can almost see him pushing a lawn mower—and as the object of his desire, Natalie Wolf is both wittily commonsensical and in fine voice.
In the curtain raiser, The Little Comedy, they play Alfred and Josefine, a pair of 19th-century Viennese swells. Each is bored with the folks they meet in upper-crust society and decides to dress down to go slumming for an evening. Meeting each other and falling briskly in love, they’re soon trapped in their respective aliases. Because the piece is based on a short story by Arthur Schnitzler, it has a trickily bittersweet ending. Both Herrmann and Harman prove adept at operetta pastiche (the artificiality particularly benefits the lyricist’s work). Though director/choreographer Tom Wyatt has made things busier than they need to be, the show works reasonably well in the Rose Organization’s production. It’s so inconsequential, though, that patrons are likely to have forgotten it by the time they hit the parking lot.