As Boston’s larger theaters ramp up for their season openers next month, there’s a fantastic fringe gem to be seen on a backstage in the round setup at the BCA. And the word is out on Bad Habit Productions’, whose output just seems to be getting better & better, production of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. They’re selling out shows and have just extended their run until September 2nd. I’ve sat through a few bad and frankly tiring fringe shows this summer and it’s incredibly satisfying and encouraging (especially as we go into fall) to see such a solid production. And one, I think it’s important to say, by a company that has built a real audience, not just the usual group of friends and fellow fringe sceners that too often fill the seats of Boston’s small shows.
Bad Habit has an uncanny ability to do British theater without failing, where so many small companies do, on the production level. The accents here are nearly flawless. The costumes (Pamela DeGregorio) are thrifty, but extremely well done especially where it counts, with Wilde’s (John Geoffrion) slimly tailored suit. And the production never descends into an anglophilic bore. Even on its bare set, the show moves along at a quick, infatuating pace. The cast delivers the text with a wonderful sense of its rhythm and Director Liz Fenstermaker’s blocking keeps the show in an almost constant state of artfully orchestrated motion.
Gross Indecency is something of a courtroom drama that traces the legal course of Wilde’s eventual conviction of “gross indecency” through playwright Moises Kaufman’s skillfully arranged excerpts-turned-lines from memoirs, newspapers, courtroom transcripts, letters, and biographies. It’s the jumps between Kaufman’s sources that make the play so lively and engaging and it’s really a triumph the text doesn’t a) become a dry historical drama or b) use the history only as a vehicle to convey a contemporary political agenda. A martyr Wilde was not. The picture we get here, is that Wilde’s conviction and eventual ruin was more of a tragic demise. He gets pulled into the squabbles of his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas’, aristocrat family, taking Douglas’ father to court for libel over a nasty note. And Wilde does this believing he can out-wit the court, like it’s a society gathering at some London salon, exuding so much confidence that he compares letters of his submitted as evidence to Shakespeare. He is truly unable to separate his life from his art.
But for all his brilliant quips, flippant replies, and articulate speeches (which John Geoffrion pulls off with perfect confidence and poise), Wilde loses, eventually trapping himself by saying he didn’t kiss a boy because “he was not beautiful.” A remark he may have delivered glibly to a group of fellow aesthetes at another time & place. This leads to two subsequent trials where he is prosecuted by the crown for his sexual deviance, as well as Wilde’s eventual ruin. He still has friends until the end, but ignores their pleas that he go abroad–a solution which the British government would have found amenable. He stays to face trial, but we don’t know why. He doesn’t make the kind of stand we would expect from some artists. We watch him lie and rhetorically dance around questions of sexuality, just as his prosecutors try to accuse him of something “grossly indecent” without actually saying anything “indecent” themselves. After his conviction Wilde requests to speak, but isn’t allowed to and it’s probably in these missing words that the play’s contradictions and our questions over Wilde’s motivations might have had an answer.
There really isn’t enough good stuff to be said about this large, all male cast. Geoffrion is untouchable as Wilde, perfectly executing his witty exuberance and eventual decline. As Douglas, Kyle Cherry might just as well have come out of a softly focused sepia photograph and speaks and moves with youthful indulgence and aristocratic entitlement. Some of his closer moments with Wilde show just the right streak of his manipulative power over his older lover. David Lutheran plays Queensbury, Douglas’ stodgy father, with maniacal obsession, as a man who has it out for Wilde, but without weighing down his character with blind malice. A fantastic ensemble brings comedy through a long list of small but convincing characters that contribute much to portraying Wilde’s trials with historical and narrative conviction.
Bad Habit Productions’ Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde runs through September 2nd at the Wimberly Theatre. Tickets are $18 in advance, $23 day of, and available at bostontheatrescene.com