Should one feel despair at the end of Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde”? The 1895 punishment meted out to the great writer by the British legal system and his subsequent physical decline was a travesty, one of the great sadnesses of literary history (which, considering all the horrible things that have happened to artists over the years, is saying something).
Or should one feel vindication knowing that within mere years after Wilde was tossed into prison with hard labor for his homosexuality that his works were selling like crazy, and that less than a hundred years later many in British society would look back on the whole experience with shame and revulsion?
Interestingly, I felt both despair and vindication after viewing the The New Ensemble Theater Group’s new and uneven production, which continues for one more weekend at the Broken Leg Stage. I’ve become used to having a good “think” after one of TNE’s plays, and this one is no exception. Director Heather Parish’s brisk staging and Kaufman’s crackling script combine for a near whirlwind experience, but if you let the storyline and its implications soak in afterward, that’s when the real impact occurs.
Parish likes to mix it up when it comes to gender-blind casting, and in this production she makes the tantalizing decision to cast Oscar Wilde with a woman. Haley White delivers a finely crafted and nuanced performance. Her Wilde is a smug and pompous elitist, of course, and when the character engages in the first of his three trials — instigated by Wilde himself after the father of his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (played by a precise and impressive Bridget Martin), calls him out for his sexuality — his haughty confidence is thick in the air.
When Wilde’s confidence is shaken on the witness stand, there’s a subtle but remarkable transformation in White’s portrayal that is extremely effective. We get a glimpse of the Wilde who will be flailing by the time his third trial ends.
While I thought having a woman portray the title character works, what I missed from this production was an undercurrent of sexual tension. The ensemble members portraying Wilde’s accused lovers are also played by women, including Jessica Reedy and Brooke Aiello (both of whom are very good), so everything is appropriately parallel in terms of same-sex attraction. But because of the way it’s directed, or my own male-centric prejudices, I just didn’t pick up on the forbidden sensuality that came across so clearly when I saw an earlier production of this play. (There’s even a line that explains why sexual relations between men were forbidden by Britain but no corresponding law against relations between women because those things just didn’t happen — so perhaps I’m ensnared in a cultural or personal construct here.)
In terms of the acting ensemble, Thomas Nance, usually a stalwart company member, had some uneven moments at the Friday performance I attended. And this is one of those times when the tiny Broken Leg space and the minimal scenic and lighting design worked slightly against the show — which is a pretty rare way for me to feel at a New Ensemble production. But overall, this “Gross Indecency” gives a fascinating and unorthodox glimpse at a remarkable artist.