|A toned-down Ryan Landry, of the Gold Dust Orphans theater troupe, stars as Oscar Wilde. (Eileen Counihan)|
‘Trials’ and tribulations of Oscar Wilde
PROVINCETOWN - If Oscar Wilde were alive today, he’d probably revel in Provincetown, roaming the streets with a swagger. It’s with that knowledge - and, hence, a particular passion - that Counter Productions dramatizes the darkest days of Wilde’s life in Victorian England, where he was convicted, imprisoned, and relegated to financial ruin for the crime of having trysts with younger men.
Like his most famous work, “The Laramie Project,’’ playwright Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,’’ first performed in New York in 1997, is built on source materials: quotations from memoirs, trial transcripts, newspaper reports, and Wilde’s own work, layered together to create a sometimes gripping courtroom drama.
On one level, “Gross Indecency’’ is a play about gay rights, and Wilde’s insistence that he was truly “not guilty’’ of an act that should not be a crime. But it’s also about the power and risk of subversive art, the nature of identity, and the way language can be used as both a tool and a weapon. Wilde’s insouciant wit made him a success, but it also caused his downfall: The events in “Gross Indecency’’ were triggered by Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, a petulant young lover with daddy issues. But the case against Wilde turned on his joking denial that he kissed another boy - because the boy was too plain. It’s a moment when the actor playing Wilde must shift from breezy confidence - treating the court proceedings as if they were a game - to the dark recognition that he may be doomed.
In the original off-off-Broadway production, Wilde was played by Michael Emerson, Emmy-nominated now for his turn as Ben on “Lost.’’ Here he’s played - with attendant marketing drum rolls - by Ryan Landry, leader of the Gold Dust Orphans theater troupe. From someone who recently played Willie Wanker in a risque adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic - not to mention the Wicked Witch of the South End in a Wizard of Oz parody called “Whizzin’ ’’ - you might expect a performance of over-the-top flamboyance. But in “Gross Indecency,’’ Landry is understated, even subdued. He spends most of the play perched on a too-small red upholstered chair at the center of the stage, his long legs bent beneath him, watching the proceedings first with snide confidence, then increasing despair. His discomfort builds up to an outburst at the end, a wailing lamentation over a hedonistic time that has come to a sudden end.
Landry’s intense but understated energy stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the all-male cast, decked in grey suits and, in some cases, courtroom wigs, shouting out lines with more traditional punch from different corners of the stripped-down set. (The other players also delve into British accents of varying degrees, but Landry speaks American, which was jarring at first, but ultimately became less of an issue.) With actors taking turns reciting passages from historic texts, the play amounted to more monologues than dialogue, and it’s clearly a memorization challenge. In the performance I saw, there were several awkward pauses as the performers waited for someone to remember a line.
Still, what they lacked in memory they largely made up for in emotion, and aside from Landry, a few other actors stood out. Ben Griessmeyer was vivid as Douglas, and Ethan Paulini nearly stole the show in a brief interlude as a halting modern-day academic, trying to explain why, for a community seeking heroes, Wilde falls short. He wasn’t an activist, after all. He was an artist.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.