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Gross Indecency:The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

By Elyse Sommer

I'm an Oscar Wilde fan and inclined to see anything by and about him. However the February press announcement about a new play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, arrived at an enormously busy time. Therefore, since I've seen and re-read a lot of Oscar Wilde over the last couple of seasons, (including a one-person memoir, The Wilde Spirit), I put it aside.

Happily the theatrical gods who keep watch over small dramatic gems like this heard the applause of those who did catch the play's limited run in the small, non-commercial auditorium of Greenwich House. Gross Indecency has risen from its brief interment and been handsomely re-mounted for a commercial run at the Minetta Lane. And now that I've seen it, I can safely say that like another of this season's off-Broadway triumphs, How I Learned to Drive, this is exactly the sort of highly original drama which makes the theater not just a night out but a memorable, thought- provoking experience. I can also tell you that as playwright Paula Vogel turned the unlikely subject of pedophelia into a work of art , so writer-director Moisés S. Kaufman has mined artistic gold from a much documented and previously dramatized story, and like Vogel, he explodes our image of victims and victimizers.

This new chronicle of Oscar Wilde's fall from fame and fortune may sound somewhat saddle-worn but it has all the sprightly energy of a new-born colt and embraces several dramatic genres: Docudrama, courtroom drama,social commentary, tragedy and comedy. If you go, and if you love good theater, you should, you're in for for a spell-binding and timely two and a half hours. Well, okay, to put one reservation up front--two hours and fifteen minutes would have been better, but with all this impressive research put to such ingenious good use, it's hard to nitpick.

What exactly is this magical spell that will keep you glued in your seat as if you'd never heard about the sex scandal that bankrupted and imprisoned the Victorian era's most renowned wit?

To begin with, Mr. Kaufman's manuscript is a brilliant patchwork of contemporary court documents, newspaper accounts and books by and about Wilde. What's more, he makes no attempt to hide the seams of his research. On the contrary, the books and papers are much in evidence and regularly read from by four actors who sit at a long table at the front of the stage. With the courtroom participants above and behind them this quartet, (superbly acted by Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Troy Sostillio and Greg Steinbruner), takes several convincing and often hilarious figurative leaps across the investigator-commentator-voyeur side of the table. These multiple roles bring to the table, Queen Victoria, (the author of the Gross Indecency law), and George Bernard Shaw, to name just two. It's a device that charges the trials with theatrical energy. And it draws in the audience like a magnet.

To bridge the first and second act, two of the quartet step into a twentieth century broadcast interview during which Steinbruner as an academician and Wilde expert offers a satiric analysis of Wilde's testimony pertaining to his homosexual behavior. This routine is as apt as it's funny, and by itself worth the price of admission--well, at least back when it was a bargain priced $12 during its non-profit run.

At one point in the proceedings, each of the role-switching intermediaries between the courtroom and the audience abandons his dignified black suit and, dressed in long white underwear, bears witness to how Wilde bought his sexual favors. Throughout this amusingly uninhibited public display of Wilde's "dirty underwear" there is the man accused of acts of "gross indecency." With his impeccable attire, ramrod straight posture and pale, pain-frosted face, he is a living portrait of a proud man whose intellectual reservoirs contain nothing that can restore his shredded dignity. Michael Emerson, a heretofore unknown and underemployed actor, proves himself more than capable of portraying a man of enormous intellect and ego who must face not only disgrace and bankruptcy but the knowledge that he was his own victimizer. Even before he stabbed himself with his own clever tongue he frittered away his talents by surrounding himself "with the smaller natures and the meaner minds." As he quotes from "De Profundis" towards the end of the play "I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy."

Wilde's stab-of-the-wit downfall is stunningly dramatized and acted by Trevor Anthony and John McAdams (the lawyers for prosecution and defense) as well as Emerson. The moment when Wilde denies kissing a young man with a witty putdown of his looks instead of a simple No, the three men's faces reflect the realization of the mistake Wilde has made more clearly than if a gun had gone off.

To sum up the play's other virtues: Bill Dawes looks the part of the handsome young Alfred Douglas who so beguiled Wilde. However, of the whole ensemble he is the only one whose line delivery leaves something to be desired. (Ed. Note: It was Douglas, by the way, who coined the phrase "the love that has no name" And while Douglas at one point plaintively complains that Wilde turned against him, Wilde's long epistolatory reprimand, "De Profundis," may have been well founded when you consider that Douglas lived long enough to become a Nazi sympathizer). Robert Blumenfeld, as Douglas' father, the nutty Marquesss of Queensberry, is a properly imposing Heavy. As costume designer Kitty Leech, cleverly dressed the young male lovers-for-sale in Victorian underwear, sound designer Wayne Frost's use of ringing gongs to mark the end of the fast-moving courtroom interchanges is an amusing reflection on Queensbury's only claim to fame--the authorship of a boxing rule book.

As for my introductory comment about the play being timely--just think about all the media brouhaha about adultery in the armed services. Would Oscar Wilde identify with Lt. Kelly Flinn? Her much publicized success as a female pilot, like Wilde's literary success, was toppled by an unwise love affair and a lie instead a straightforward response. Are the military rules about adultery as overdue for dumping as the "Gross Indecency" laws which stayed in effect until 1954?

A Wilde epigram printed at the end of the cast list of the program notes, sums up what makes this three-trial portrait of Wilde so new and thought-provoking: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple."

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde
Written and directed by Moisés S. Kaufman
With Michael Emerson as Oscar Wilde
Bill Dawes as Sir Alfred Douglas
And 7 other actors in multiple roles
Minetta Lane, 18 Minetta Lane. (212)420-8800
Re-Opening 6/05/97
Note: Initial short run at Greenwich House 2/27-3/23 Extended twice but had to close 5/05
11/21/97 The play also opened in San Francisco's Theatre on the Square and will also run from 2/8/98-2/17/98 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles!
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer