What a pity that Oscar Wilde hasn't come up with new epigrams for "Diversions & Delights," at Ford's Theatre.
Wilde is convincingly there, in John Gay's skillful play and Vincent Price's clever acting, giving a lecture in the last year of his life, in exile in Paris after his imprisonment in England for homosecuality. But they show him worn out by life, desperately trying to sprinkle some of his old witticisms over the bitterness of his experience. It may well be authentic for that Wilde, but it is painfully unlike the brilliant Wilde we can distill from his successes after his death.
There he is, trapped as if on a television talk show, being relentlessly egged on to produce that outrageously funny stuff the audience has a right to expect from the celebrity of a great scandal. Why? Well, the play accounts for it: As Wilde says, he needs the money.
Absinthe in hand, Wilde promises "not to lead you astray into the path of virture," and talks, as if to a 1900 Parisian audience, of art and beauty and love, and then, more deeply, of the inhumanity of man. The somber revelations are carefully retracted by an apparently automatic sneering device, befiting someone whose credo was that only the superficial can be deep.
The cleverness of this balance is astounding. But the early part of "The Picture of Dorian Grey" has been picked clean of its paradoxes, and the plays thoroughly filleted so the epigrams can be served up without the bones, in order to supply this wit.
FOr old fans, it is tiring to always know what is coming. For those who are just preparing their first high-school production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," it is a shame to deprive them of discovering these gems in their proper setting. There is a small book out of Oscar Wilde one-liners, and it destroys his humor while seeking to preserve his wit. Isolated, some of the theater's greatest lines seem to shrivel to formula.
Vincent Price's acting is as deft as Gay's play. Although his high head, pursed lips and wobbling chin may occasionally find you thinking of Robert Morley selling Great Britain at a discount, Price does a vivid combination of arrogance and weakness that must truly represent the Wilde of that time. Besides, it's amazing to see someone keep his eyebrows in the accent circumflex position for an entire evening.
He does indeed seem to be Wilde "in the wicked flesh," as he says. He speaks out furiously on the tortures of prisons, and then works up an equal outrage about the ugliness of his sitting room.
The opening-night audience cheered when Wilde said, "Men had the rack in the old days; today we have the press," and deplored the serving up of what we now call "personalities" to the public. In a riveting scene, he talks of being made to stand on a train platform, in convict dress, while the curious collect to jeer and spit. That he might offer himself up as a celebrity for the public to judge, at the sad end of his life, is not unbelievable, though it can't help being pitiful.
But at least he didn't conclude his distillation of a lifetime's wit and wisdom by announcing the discovery that to be in society "is merely a bore. But to be out of it simply a tragedy."