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Movie Review: Next Stop Wonderland -- The people make up for the plot

By Bence Olveczky
Staff Reporter

Boston University Theatre

264 Huntington Avenue, Boston


Tickets $10-$49.50, $5 discount for students and seniors

Through October 11

The Huntington Theatre staging of Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is well in tune with the Oscar Wilde-mania that brought us Liam Neeson's interpretation of the famous writer in The Judas Kiss and the recent Hollywood release Wilde.

Two years before the centennial anniversary of his death, the flamboyant and provocative Irish aristocrat, whose open homosexuality was paired with a last minute conversion to Catholicism, has become the unlikely icon and martyr for non-conformists, neo-liberals, and gays alike. But in the almost ritual worshipping of his soap-opera-like life, Oscar Wilde's true literary legacy has fallen by the wayside, with plays reinventing his persona far outnumbering the stagings of the playwright's own work.

In Gross Indecency, Moises Kaufman adds to the Wilde renaissance by focusing on the trials that caused the ultimate demise of an ailing Oscar Wilde. Having triumphed in all his endeavors, social as well as artistic, Wilde sought the ultimate trophy: to challenge and defeat the rigid moral standards of Victorian England in a court of law.

In his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote, "For any man of culture to accept the standards of his own age is a form of the grossest immorality." Life is to be beautified by pleasure, Wilde argued, and if it involves seducing young men of his fancy, well so be it.

But Oscar Wilde, a married man with two children, clearly pushed his luck too far when he sued the father of his 20 year-old gay lover, Marquees of Queensbury, for having called him a sodomite. He lost the libel suit, and in ensuing trials he was charged with "gross indecency," found guilty, and sentenced to two years of hard labor.

Kaufman, rather than writing a play, edits the documents describing the trial. He blends court transcripts with press reports, contemporary literary criticism and personal communication between Wilde, his friends and foes, and pieces it all together into a literary mosaic that portrays Wilde's personality from widely different angles.

There are many intriguing questions buried in the documents that make up the play. Is art and literature an act of morality, or simply an aesthetic pursuit? Should a public figure be judged by his work alone, or are his sexual preferences and moral convictions equally important? And what is morality? Is it just a matter of accepting the norms of one's age? Or is it an absolute standard by which everybody should be measured? These questions are as urgent today as they were 100 years ago.

But the fragmented text itself does not provide the necessary drama, making the play rather lifeless and factual. It is for the theatrical interpretation to breathe life into the otherwise cleverly assembled text, and it is here that the Huntington production stumbles. Director Michael Bloom is simply unable to deliver theatrical solutions that would make the play work

The stage is transformed into a court room where the judicial battle between Wilde and Queensbury is played out. In addition to the main characters, the stage is populated by an ensemble of gray-clad men, their uniforms and manners overstating the rigidity and Puritanism that Wilde is challenging. It is these anonymous characters that provide the narration and commentary for the audience in their role as jury.

The play is carried mainly by Oscar Wilde's intriguing personality, but Donald Carrier's rendering lacks the passion, flamboyance, and complexity of the enigmatic writer. His lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, as played by Christopher Duva, is devoid of the innocent charm and provocative beauty that must have captivated the middle-aged writer. The rest of the cast, when not narrating the happenings, play a variety of roles including attorneys, magistrates, Queen Victoria, and George Bernard Shaw. The actors are try hard to use true Irish and English accents, but to no avail.

Sadly, the conflict between Wilde and his contemporaries is never felt - only implied - and the attention of the audience/jury sways easily for the lack of surprise and pace in the production. Many innocent members of the audience seeking refuge in the theater from the banalities of everyday life will find themselves reflecting on the Lewinsky scandal (not again!) as the play, however unwillingly, becomes another sorry commentary on the hypocrisy and double standards surrounding the real political farce.

Oscar Wilde was a daring and controversial figure with a unique artistic vision, who always pushed the limits of the acceptable - a literary Larry Flynt. A production aiming to capture the essence of his legacy must dare to be original, unpredictable, and full of pace, passion and poignancy. The Boston production of Gross Indecency is simply too decent and predictable to succeed.