Worthy of an Oscar

The most startling scene in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde -- having its Florida premiere at the Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca Raton -- opens the second act. It's set on the stage of a twentieth-century talk show on which a fatuous TV host and a self-important academic discuss the impact of Wilde on our time. What's immediately apparent is that the scene is an abrupt turnaround from the formal, darkly lit Victorian courtroom that dominates the play's first hour. The house lights go up. The play's audience becomes the studio audience. And Wilde is given the sort of Today Show treatment regularly given to rock stars and scandal-ridden politicians.

A parody of entertainment TV, the scene sets up the notion that Wilde was the Madonna of his day, a celebrity who strained against the contemporary boundaries of decency and changed them forever. It's also the first instance in which the play lets us stand back and take a look at this baffling historic figure; here the themes of Wilde's life are put into a twentieth-century context.

The limp-wristed academic directly asks the questions that Wilde's behavior still elicits: Why did Oscar Wilde deny he was a homosexual in court? Did he even consider himself a homosexual? And what made him -- a man of considerable intelligence and savvy -- think he could allow his decadent lifestyle to undergo scrutiny in the prudish atmosphere of a Victorian courtroom?

Gross Indecency, by Venezuela-born, New York-based playwright Moises Kaufman, is one of three high-profile dramas about Wilde that have recently appeared. A witty, engaging play, its shortcoming is that, while it may come closer to examining the real Wilde than the two other biographies, it never really brings into focus the provocative ideas it presents. Wilde may indeed be the very model of a modern homosexual, at least as popularly imagined by many, but by play's end no new portrait of the artist has emerged.

Are we supposed to think of Wilde as a self-destructive dandy? Was he the first artistic martyr of the twentieth-century? Although he's generally acknowledged to be one of the first "out" homosexuals of our era, is he a figure with whom contemporary gays still identify? And even if so, is he -- as Gross Indecency faintly suggests -- a personality whose historic role is due for revision? Despite the energy and humor of the drama, it's impossible to figure out just what the playwright is getting at.

Which is not to say that Wilde's life isn't fascinating -- and marketable -- in itself. The other two works are Wilde, the movie starring Stephen Fry, which emphasizes Wilde as a genius and a trendsetter; and David Hare's play The Judas Kiss, recently staged in London and now on Broadway; Liam Neeson stars as the Irish writer embroiled in a complicated love affair with young Lord Alfred Douglas.

In contrast, Gross Indecency, an Outer Critics Circle Award-winner for best off-Broadway play and an ongoing hit in New York -- where it's directed by playwright Kaufman -- looks closely at the writer as he pursues his famous libel suit against Douglas's father, the Marquis of Queensberry. The play tracks Wilde as he withdraws his suit, only to be arrested for so-called gross indecency (the Victorian term for homosexual acts), found guilty, and sent to jail and to his ultimate ruin.

The play is set in 1895, the year that Wilde, then in his early forties, had two hits -- An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest -- in London's West End theaters. By that time the writer was the center of the artistic demimonde that also included Aubrey Beardsley (whose erotic drawings for Wilde's 1892 play Salome decorate the set of Gross Indecency); the painter James Whistler; the French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme, and others. Wilde's 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray had by this time already introduced the then-shocking idea of "art for art's sake," a notion that went against the Victorian thought that a work of art should promote moral behavior rather than be judged on its own aesthetic merits.

Meanwhile, Wilde's public relationship with the 24-year-old Douglas, whom he met in 1891, was flourishing. The romance was pushed to an unsettling climax when the Marquis of Queensberry (who standardized the rules of boxing) insisted that the relationship be terminated. But not even Queensberry could have imagined the downward spiral that Wilde's life would follow.

As the play recounts, Queensberry had harassed Wilde on other occasions. He once showed up at Wilde's house, bodyguard in tow, to threaten the writer: "If I catch you and my son together again ... I will thrash you," he reportedly said. To this Wilde, with characteristic aplomb, replied, "I don't know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight."

In 1895, however, having been physically blocked from attending the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest, Queensberry arrived at Wilde's club and delivered a card on which he wrote "To Oscar Wilde, posing Sodomite." Wilde took him to court for libel. When it became apparent that Queensberry could indeed present witnesses giving evidence of Wilde's homosexual behavior, Wilde withdrew his suit, after which he was immediately arrested for gross indecency. The trial ended in a hung jury, but in a later trial he was found guilty and sentenced to two years at hard labor.

Gross Indecency is perhaps less a work of fiction than the other two contemporary Wilde dramas, since it was culled almost entirely from court transcripts as well as from his letters and excerpts from The Picture of Dorian Gray; his essay "De Profundis" (written while in prison); and his letters to Douglas. In fact, you might call it theater's answer to the documentary film. With the exception of John Felix, who plays Wilde, all the actors play multiple parts. This splitting up of duties allows a parade of talking heads to cross the stage, from George Bernard Shaw and Queen Victoria to the slew of working-class male prostitutes who, dressed in their underwear, give evidence against Wilde in court.

Likewise portrayed are various London journalists declaring Wilde's court experience "the trial of the century," as well as the prosecutors, the defense attorney, Wilde's wife (yes, he was married, with two children), his mother, and the man who procured boys for him. Douglas and his father are played, respectively, by Gordon Brode and Steve Wise, both deft performers who handle fewer secondary roles but create memorable profiles for their primary characters. What also gives the play a documentary feel is the presence of narrators (also played by revolving cast members) who describe scenes as they occur.

While the play doesn't give us a new perspective on Wilde, the Caldwell production, directed by artistic director Michael Hall and designed by Tim Bennett and Thomas Salzman, is, quite simply, beautiful. From its design -- in which actors and abstract scenery alike are outfitted in a black-to-gray color scheme -- to its razor-sharp pacing, the show exults in its own artistic universe.

Unlike the play's dialogue, in which the juxtaposition of Wilde's writing and his court testimony never creates any friction, the staging uses conflicting moods to great effect. The contrast between the somber attitudes of the Old Bailey judges and lawyers and the near-obscene Beardsley prints that line the stage points up the palpable tension between Wilde and the society he lived in.

Foremost, John Felix's performance gives us a glimpse of Wilde as a living, breathing genius -- and a sympathetic one at that. A rotund middle-aged man who looks and moves a bit like the Cowardly Lion wearing a morning coat, Felix resembles the later photographs of Wilde, when he was no longer the long-haired boulevardier we often think of when we envision Wilde. He seems vulnerable and human.

The academic in the play's talk-show scene suggests that Wilde, a brilliant and confident wordsmith, succeeded only when he was able to "control the discourse" around him. Up against the legal colloquy in court, he was bound to fail. Felix's performance evokes this idea. His Oscar Wilde seems genuinely bewildered that his own wit cannot save him. Gross indecencies aside, Felix and the rest of the Caldwell performers and technicians give us a show we can be Wilde about.

Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.
Written by Moises Kaufman; directed by Michael Hall; with Gordon Brode, Matthew Coyle, John Felix, John Hansen, Mark Heimann, Kenneth Kay, Michael Warga, Joe Warik, and Steve Wise. Through August 12. Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N Federal Hwy, Boca Raton; 561-241-7432.

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