By Joseph Hurley
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING OSCAR, by Micheal MacLiammoir. Starring Niall Buggy. Directed by Charlotte Moore. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd St., NYC. Through March 4.
Niall Buggy, one of the Dublin theater’s most accomplished and experienced performers, possesses, in grateful abundance, one of the most valuable qualities within the actor’s toolbox, namely the ability to create the illusion of the first time, a way of convincing his audience that the words he is saying and the story he is telling are being uttered for the very first time.
Buggy, an ordinary-looking man in much the same way that the late Alec Guinness was often described as being anonymous in appearance, is currently putting his redoubtable skills, both as actor and storyteller, to mesmerizing use in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of "The Importance of Being Oscar."
The dazzling, dauntingly difficult solo show was written by the great Micheal MacLiammoir, co-founder of Dublin’s Gate Theatre, who debuted it at that city’s Gaiety Theatre in 1960 and performed it to great acclaim around the world until 1975, just three years before his death.
Since MacLiammoir was so closely identified with the show, and since the actor-playwright’s version still exists on a first-rate recording, Buggy cannot help but invite comparison with the event’s creator. He has nothing whatever to worry about, so completely and so compellingly has he made the material his own.
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Wearing black dress pants, gleaming patent leather pumps, and a dark gray jacket topped off by a flowing Victorian cravat, a comfortable-seeming ensemble provided by designer David Toser, the actor strides onstage and more or less immediately makes the territory utterly his own, regarding the audience in front of him and to his right in the Rep’s bifurcated auditorium as though they already were what they very soon become, welcome guests in the fascinating, intimate world over which he so gracefully holds sway.
That "world," as red as the inside of a human heart, is the work of the Irish Rep’s Artistic Director, Charlotte Moore, who, on this occasion, designed the production as well as directed it.
As the audience settles into its seats, filmy curtains billow in an open floor-length French window, bathed in scarlet light, courtesy of designer Jason A. Cina. Three chairs and a desk dominate center stage, and on the desk, highlighted, lies the single green carnation Oscar Wilde made famous.
In "The Importance of Being Oscar," as shaped by Moore, Buggy doesn’t impersonate Wilde to the extent that Micheal MacLiammoir did when he brought the show to New York in the 1960s. Rather, he describes and defines the life and work of the brilliant, embattled poet and dramatist, the well-born son of an Anglo-Irish eye surgeon and his free-thinking wife, who herself wrote verse, using the pen name "Speranza."
In describing, and to some degree performing, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" in the first act, and "De Profundis" in the second, Buggy comes close to inhabiting the spirit of Oscar Wilde with a breathtaking measure of intimacy and intensity, achieving, particularly in the latter instance, a heartbreaking poignancy.
The materials of the first half of Buggy’s "Oscar" include, among other diverse items, an affectionate rendering of the details of the writer’s 1882 visit to the miners of Leadville, Colo., with whom he discoursed on the subtleties of Florentine painting, his infatuation with the actress Lily Langtry, his marriage to Constance Mary Lloyd, the aforementioned encapsulation of "Dorian Gray," and beautifully realized scenes from "An Ideal Husband" and, unsurprisingly, the immortal "interview scene" from "the Importance of Being Earnest,’ in which Lady Bracknell finds Jack Worthing an unsuitable marital candidate for her daughter Gwendolyn.
The act ends with the entrance into Wilde’s life of "the golden-haired youth," Lord Alfred Douglas, otherwise known as "Bosie," the beginning of the unfortunate relationship that ushered in the tragic and ultimately fatal downward spiral in the poet’s personal fortunes.
The major irony of Oscar Wilde’s story is, of course, that as his private life became increasingly chaotic, his professional world reached its zenith, with his plays "Salome," "Lady Windermere’s Fan," "A Woman of No Importance," "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "An Ideal Husband," being produced in the brief period starting in 1891 and ending in 1895, when "Earnest" and "Husband" were both shuttered at the height of their great success in West End theaters because of the playwright’s "immortality."
The show’s second act concentrates on Oscar’s sorrows, his trials, and his eventual departure from England and the life he had loved perhaps too rashly and too well. In addition to "De Profundis," the concluding hour of "The Importance of Being Oscar" contains an unforgettably understated performance of "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," and, to be sure, an account of Wilde’s last days and hours in the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris, where he famously waged war against the wallpaper in his room, a battle he finally lost on Nov. 30, 1900.
By resurrecting "The Importance of Being Oscar," and especially by doing it this well and this meticulously, Niall Buggy and Charlotte Moore have performed a considerable service on behalf of Wilde, Micheal MacLiammoir, and, without question the theatergoing public.
What they have done is quite simply to have given a second life to a valuable and unique theater work, one that, until now, appeared to have perished with MacLiammoir’s passing in 1978.
If that weren’t sufficient virtue for one production, it should be made clear that Buggy’s incandescent performance, with his admirable diction and astonishing vocal power and projection, should provide an object lesson for anyone interested in the art of the solo performer.
"The Importance of Being Oscar," which will occupy the Mainstage of the Irish Repertory Theatre until March 4, is a splendid achievement.