For all the canny craftsmanship of "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," the piece cannot adequately address the sad riddle at its heart: Why did Wilde so vigorously embark on a legal course that would lead to his own ruin?
Jeremy Skidmore's very fine staging of Moises Kaufman's innovative 1997 courtroom drama offers no substantive new clues to the puzzle. But his production at the H Street Playhouse suffuses the play-by-play of the celebrated case with a fervent theatricality. If Wilde's motives remain a mystery, in accusing the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, of libeling him as a "sodomite," an audience gets to see in ever sharper relief what kind of world Wilde was up against. The harshest verdict, in Kaufman's view, is rendered not on Wilde but on a society incapable of forgiving what it didn't understand.
The Theater Alliance revival brings "Gross Indecency" back to Washington for the first time since a production at Studio Theatre seven years ago. Concerning itself with an artist who came to care more for beauty than popular validation, the play is a reminder of the myriad forms in which a dissenting voice can speak. And out of the mouths of Skidmore's youthful cast, "Gross Indecency" does indeed reinvigorate the words spoken and written by Wilde and others more than a century ago.
"Gross Indecency" is a nifty interlacing of stagecraft and scholarship. Culled from many sources -- Wilde's essays, lawyers' journals and Douglas's autobiography among them -- the narrative traces the bizarre twists in one of the first great trials of the age of the scandal sheet. Unlike Michael Jackson, Wilde did not have to pass daily through metal detectors. Like Jackson, however, his predicament was occasioned as much by hubris and bad publicity as anything thrown at him by the legal system.
Skidmore's concept makes the proceedings all the more compelling. He and the set designer, Jacob Muehlhausen, transform the Playhouse space into an arena. On all four sides the audience sits, two rows deep: We're members of the jury. All the court's a stage, it seems, and all the litigants merely players. A shelf covered in old newspapers and plays and books by Wilde and his contemporaries, handled and replaced frequently by the actors, separates spectators from the performance area. At the center of the arena is a triangular platform holding a revolving witness chair.
With three trials to get through, the play can be quite a squirmy experience. (The chatty prologue aimed at easing us into the story feels unnecessarily protracted.) The first trial, brought in a suit by Wilde, ends abruptly when his lawyer realizes that Wilde's accuser, the Marquess of Queensberry, can indeed back up his statements about Wilde's sexual proclivities. Egged on by the press, the government soon turns the tables on Wilde and charges him with committing grossly indecent acts. After this trial ends in a hung jury, Wilde is retried, convicted and sentenced to two years' hard labor. (He died in 1900, not long after his release from prison.)
Skidmore, fortunately, has an eye for spectacle, and, aided greatly by lighting designer Andrew E. Cissna, he finds all sorts of intriguing ways to dramatize the trials. At one point, for instance, a lawyer played by Chance Carroll conducts a cross-examination of Wilde (Cooper D'Ambrose) by pacing ever more swiftly around the central platform. To keep up with a punishing line of inquiry, Wilde is required to spin faster and faster in the chair.
Though "Gross Indecency" does allow for nuance -- it is suggested that the authorities had no urgent desire to prosecute Wilde and even timed the signing of his indictment to give him the option of a head start on a boat to France -- Wilde is clearly the martyr here. You do want to see in Wilde some measure of the self-regard and self-delusion that would have compelled him to take up the calamitous legal fight with the Marquess of Queensberry (Scott McCormick). The casting of the dewy D'Ambrose works against this notion. While Wilde is supposed to be in his early forties, D'Ambrose, a young actor of promise and handsome bearing, looks no more than 20. He is, according to the program, a senior at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where Skidmore staged a version of this production earlier this year.
What's lost here is some account of Wilde's complexity: his arrogance, his vulnerability. He is, after all, pursuing men half his age. There has to be more to him than a placid surface. The importance is in being something more than earnest.
Around D'Ambrose, Skidmore puts together an excellent ensemble. Andrew Pastides provides just what is required, a callow Lord Douglas (aka "Bosie") who doesn't fully grasp the stakes for his lover. Some portraits of Bosie have been far less flattering than the one supplied by Kaufman, who relies heavily on Bosie's own words. Still, Pastides proves a persuasive embodiment of bruised, upper-crust entitlement. Jason Lott is impressive as a coarse young man who turns on Wilde on the witness stand; Chris Davenport makes a sturdy contribution as Wilde's lawyer; and Alexander Strain is eminently watchable in each small role he's been assigned.
"Gross Indecency" does not have to crack open Wilde's psyche to make us feel deeply for him. At the play's conclusion, there's one final tidbit from the writer's marvelous work, recited to us in total darkness. It's a moving indication of how well Skidmore's sensibility meshes with Kaufman's handiwork. Offered to us as history, it plays like tragedy.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, by Moises Kaufman. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Set, Jacob Muehlhausen; lighting, Andrew E. Cissna; costumes, Erin Nugent; sound, Bryan Z. Richards; dialect coach, Jennifer Mendenhall. With Kevin Boggs, Eric Messner, Dan Via, Grady Weatherford. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Sept. 18 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.theateralliance.com.