By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Which brings us to Moises Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, at the Mark Taper Forum. This docudrama adds up to a barrage of courtroom testimony and biographical research about the life of Oscar Wilde and the charges of sodomy lodged against him in the 1890s - first by the Marquis of Queensberry, later by the Crown. Narrated and enacted by nine men, Kaufman's drill-team direction is absolutely hypnotic. (At an elongated downstage table sits a quartet of narrators, snapping newspapers in sync, barking out commentary and punctuating the sleek verbal rhythms with all manner of percussion instruments.)
The plot's central triangle involves Wilde (the diminutive Michael Emerson); his lover, poet Lord Alfred Douglas (Mike Doyle); and Douglas' deranged father, the aforementioned marquis (Hal Robinson). Incensed by his son's too-close, too-flamboyant association with Wilde, Queensberry leaves a calling card at the Albemarle Club: "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]." Goaded by Douglas, Wilde sues Queensberry for libel in a trial wherein the scribe is obliged to demonstrate how the accusation is unjustified. He can't, and so - in two later trials - Wilde becomes the defendant, facing a malicious press, a Puritan society and charges of "gross indecency."
Eventually, our stalwart hero wilts under the homophobic lashings. Even his wit betrays him. In a preposterous and pretentious defense, he argues that his debaucheries with pretty, young male prostitutes served noble feelings and high art - and it appears that Kaufman believes him. (The appearance of the smug, beefcake hustlers is an education, muscular hunks draped provocatively in white tunics - obviously an allusion to all those Victorian gyms that I didn't know about before.)
Despite his play's pandering belly flop into melodrama, Kaufman is a tragedian at heart. His Act 1 attempt to hold Wilde responsible for his downfall - a victim of his own arrogance (Wilde lodged the first complaint in court) - is borrowed from the ancient Greeks. A riveting, revealing moment of backfiring testimony has Wilde making a glib, mean joke about a boy too ugly for him to kiss. But while Kaufman the playwright aims for a tragic dimension, depicting a battle between flawed equals - Wilde and his accusers - Kaufman the lobbyist can't, or won't, play fair to the end. For he melts a rather engaging dispute of principles into a rigged popularity contest between odious bigots and their quivering victims. As Wilde rots in prison, his delicate face growing steadily whiter, his voice more tremulous, the spiteful, absurd, victorious Queensberry lacks only a handlebar mustache to twiddle.
But this thread of pep-rally melodrama isn't half as telling as the play's epistemology, which emblemizes where new theater writing has come since the days Our Town grabbed the Pulitzer. Wilde and Wilder were both aesthetes, poets, whereas Kaufman is an empiricist. His play, in the Taper's newsdrama tradition, implies that facts (rather than poetry) equal wisdom. The set itself is decorated with books and newspapers, from which the actors continually cite supporting evidence - assuring us of the play's "truth." Kaufman stands shoulder to shoulder with Wilder's professor, with his reliance upon research and social statistics. Wilder's eternal concerns about sky and dust now fall into the second tier of importance, reserved for matters more lyrical than factual. I doubt that Our Town, were it written today, would land on a regional stage, let alone on Broadway. Our theater has become, like the citizens of Grover's Corners, too blinded by provincial, temporal concerns to recognize the things that really matter.