Transforming century-old court transcripts, newspaper accounts, various letters and telegrams — to say nothing of epigrams — into one of the most riveting and theatrical pieces of theater currently on the boards, writer-director Moises Kaufman announces himself with “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” The play, which rivals the best work of the season, has received a much-warranted commercial transfer from Off Off Broadway to one of Off Broadway’s premier theaters (the Minetta Lane) and arrives with its cast and brilliance intact. Assuming audiences follow the critics’ lead, “Indecency” should settle in for a healthy run.
The play, as the title indicates, recounts the 1895 arrest and trials that ended with Wilde’s two-year imprisonment for the “gross indecency” of sodomy. Drawn from period documents seamlessly — and dramatically — compiled by Kaufman into a cohesive, compelling narrative, “Indecency” presents the times of the man as deftly as it captures the protagonist in all his self-aggrandizing complexity.
Impeccably performed by its nine-man ensemble, “Indecency” nonetheless turns on the demanding role of Wilde, and both Kaufman and his play are beautifully served by the star-making performance of Michael Emerson. In his New York debut, Emerson delivers a characterization of nuance and power, commanding attention from his audience with a self-assurance that Wilde himself would envy.
Kaufman’s staging is nothing if not a study in deceptive simplicity. The prosecution and defense are seated at two tables on either side of the stage, while four Narrators are positioned at a long table in front, reading and enacting any number of eyewitness characters, from newspaper writers and male prostitutes to George Bernard Shaw and Queen Victoria.
Seated with Wilde and his attorney is Lord Alfred Douglas (Bill Dawes), the pretty young man with whom Wilde is besotted (and vice versa) and whose outraged father, the Marquis of Queensberry (Robert Blumenfeld), has initiated Wilde’s destruction. Although the play is loosely structured as the three trials, other scenes and events (from various published accounts, both historical and modern) are interspersed.
While Kaufman makes clear that the gross indecency was committed against Wilde and not by him, neither does he flinch from presenting the writer’s arrogance and deceptions that pave the way for his downfall. Refusing even to consider his infallibility, Wilde, upon being handed a card that contains Queensberry’s very serious charge of sodomy, responds dryly, “The Marquis’ spelling is somewhat unusual.” That printed card begins the fateful events: Wilde sues Queensberry for libel, the tide turning against Wilde mid-trial as Queensberry presents convincing evidence that his accusation is indeed true.
With an outraged public and self-righteous press calling for blood, Wilde is charged with gross indecency, the second trial presented ending in a hung jury and the third in a guilty verdict. The tawdry courtroom spectacle stoops so low as to include a string of young hustlers (cleverly presented onstage in period underwear) testifying against their former patron.
Above all the allegations and vicious attacks towers Wilde, as fascinating as any character he created. Indeed, he is his own creation, a larger-than-life dispenser of wit and insight. At times “Gross Indecency” could accurately be described as a comedy, thanks to Wilde’s wonderful retorts (done justice by Emerson’s droll, wide-eyed readings, not unlike William F. Buckley). Asked why he would associate with one young hustler, Wilde drawls, “I know he was brought up at a good English school,” the answer both self-serving and loaded with an irony lost on his interrogator.
Indeed, Wilde was nothing if not self-serving, with one modern academic (hilariously lampooned onstage) pointing out that the famous author’s honesty stopped far short of publicly declaring, much less defending, his homosexuality. The closest Wilde came to anything resembling a modern sense of gay pride was his defense, a la the ancient Greeks, of an elevated, rather spiritual love between older and younger men. His love of youth is the love of an artist for beauty.
Or so he would have it. But Wilde makes a fatal slip during one interrogation, flippantly remarking that he never kissed one accusatory witness because the boy was “too ugly.” Lofty ideals of art and beauty suddenly give way to simple carnality, and the expression of panic and regret on Wilde’s face (perfectly rendered by Emerson) make all too clear that the jig is up.
From that moment, Wilde’s fate is certain, and Emerson’s performance becomes a heartbreaking illustration of arrogance laid low, of genius brought to ruin by injustice. We are told that Wilde emerged from prison a broken man, blaming his once-beloved Lord Alfred for his downfall and dying penniless and in disgrace. Lord Alfred married, had children, became a Catholic and a Nazi sympathizer. (Such historical details are among the play’s rich rewards. Here’s another: On the night of Wilde’s much-publicized arrest for sodomy, a ship leaving England for the Continent was filled with 600 men, 10 times its usual cargo.)
While Emerson is the standout, the rest of the cast holds its own, from Dawes as the petulant, flirtatious Lord Alfred and Blumenfeld as the blustery Queensberry to the terrifically versatile ensemble of Narrators.
Tech credits are very good, particularly given the show’s humble nonprofit origins. Kitty Leech’s costumes capture the time and the mood, and Betsy Adams’ lighting works well with Sarah Lambert’s spare set in delineating scenes and atmosphere. The entire production does justice to the playwright. Make that both playwrights.