Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
Oscar Wilde to say that his biggest mistake - and Oscar was no piker in the mistake department - was putting all his genius into his life instead of his art.
So in makes perfect sense then that "Diversions and Delights." Vincent Price's one-man Wilde portrayal now at Ford's Theater should stubbornly refuse to ignite until it ignores the great man's art and concentrates instead on that benighted life.
It is easy to see what attracted Price, a wonderfully florid, showy kind of actor, to the role of Wilde, a man whose enviable achievements as a playwright and a poet were forever being overshadowed by his reputation as the supreme conversionalist of his time, the readiest of wits who could tolerate anything in the world except the ultimate sins: vulgarity and boredom.
JohnGay's play, pieced together from the whole range of Wilde's writing, depicts him impoverished and ill in Paris in the last year of his life but still able, in this imaginary lecture, to face the world with a fine panache.
Certainly there are few actors around who can outdo Vincent Price in the panache department, who can purse their lips just so or glide across the stage, elegantly bored with it all with exactly the proper look of foppish but mistakeable distaste on their faces.
Price is great fun to watch, but in the play's first act, wherein he spouts one witty epigram after another, taking out after religion, morality, critics and other dull people, things never feel quite right.
The problems is that all those jokes, laugh riots though they may be individually, when strung together make Wilde seem like nothing but an Edwardian stand-up comic, the Johnny Carson, or better still, considering his adriot use of timing and nuance, the Jack Benny of his day. Obviously, there was much more to Wilde than this, but we don't get it just yet.
The something more was the tragedy that came to him late in life. In love with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marwuess of Queensberry. Wilde was persuaded by Douglas, who hated his father more than he cared for Wilde, to sue the old man for slander when he sent Wilde a note, preposterously misspelled, calling him a "sondomite."
The trial, the most celebrated of Victorian England, ended with Wilde convicted of participation in "the love that dared not speak its name" and sentenced to two years of hard labor that destroyed him and led directly to his exile and early death in Paris.
At the very end of Act One and for most of Act Two, Price as Wilde talks about these non-laughing matters, talks very movingly in fact about his love for "Bosie," his name for Douglas, about the feelings of betrayal when he realized Douglas' true motives, about the horrors and degradations of prison life.
Wilde's anger, his wounded vanity, his helplessness, the crumbling of his expectations, are all very genuinely and movingly portrayed by Price, who makes the audience feel not sorry for him but almost in awe of what he was able to withstand. We admire Wilde the man in a way that laughing politely at his jibes had simply not prepared us for at all.