GROSS INDECENCY: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moises Kaufman. Starring Edward Hibbert. At the Minetta Lane Theatre, Greenwich Village.
Oscar Wilde is everywhere. But the finest current stage or screen portrayal of the playwright is available eight times a week at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, a venue the Irishman would have enjoyed as much as he did the silver-mining camps of the American West he visited a decade before his life began to drift into the rough waters that eventually destroyed him.
MoisTs Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” has been at the Minetta Lane for more than a year, playing to mostly packed houses. It is stronger and more moving than ever, mainly because of the presence in the cast of a “new” Oscar in the person of Edward Hibbert, a galvanic actor who won an Obie in 1993 for his comic performance in the bittersweet “Jeffrey.”
Hibbert triumphs in delineating the passion, the pride, the shame, and even the confusion that must have been present in the psychological complexity of Oscar Wilde as his life began to crumble, the result of his rash love for Lord Alfred Douglas, a shallow and selfish young would-be poet. Hibbert’s is a beautifully shaped performance, one of exquisite vulnerability. Indeed, it is impossible to come away from “Gross Indecency” without feeling Wilde’s torment.
“Gross Indecency,” a first play by a young Venezuelan now living New York, has been criticized for being a thesis piece, with every detail secured actors “reading” passages from a book, newspaper or other document. This device, which Kaufman, directing his own work, wisely abandons after the intermission, helps to establish what is probably the venture’s strongest quality, namely its clarity. “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” is a lucidly informative treatment of the official side of the sad, final phase of the writer’s life as an admired public figure in London’s literary life.
Kaufman sticks to the facts from start to finish, except for one brief and disarming “interview” at the top of the second act in which a smug TV pundit discusses aspects of Wilde’s sexual situation as it applies to Victorian times and our own with a “noted academic” who’s as nervous as he is fictitious. The scene is a joke, and a good one, but it also serves to explain some of the reasons why Wilde apparently never thought of himself as homosexual.
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Hibbert’s understated, carefully calibrated participation consists, of course, of recreations of Wilde’s actual, documented answers to the questions posed by the chief prosecutor, the Dublin-born jurist Edward Carson, as well as the writer’s exchanges with his own lawyer.
Much of Hibbert’s skilled and evocative work finds him standing stock still at a center stage podium and listening while a veritable inferno of charge and countercharge, of accusation and denial, rages around him. It has been stated often that one of the “secrets” of truly excellent performing is the rare ability to listen truthfully. Flawless listening would appear to be a technique Hibbert has mastered completely, and it adds immeasurably to the overall impact of the play.
One of the unfortunate realities of long theatrical runs is that many initially excellent productions tend to run downhill. “Gross Indecency,” always an admirable and richly enjoyable show, appears to be one of those rare occasions on which a second visit, slightly after the production’s first birthday, proves to be a subtler and finer experience than ever.
– Joseph Hurley