“The Judas Kiss” begins on a note of heterosexual lust so unbuttoned that it might embarrass even Bill Clinton, even if one wonders whether playwright David Hare’s truer intention isn’t to catch off guard an audience expecting the latest chronicle of two celebrated (and doomed) gay men. What is likely to dismay a public interested in issues besides sexual gymnastics is how a theoretically ripe theatrical venture can deliver this little juice. With a Broadway run already inked prior to its West End debut under the auspices of the Almeida Theatre, the play’s collaborators have their work cut out for them, though there’s a limit to what you can do with two central performers — the play’s self-evident draw, Liam Neeson, included — who are, quite simply, miscast.
As it happens, Neeson’s Oscar Wilde is the far less damaging half of a duo that finds Tom Hollander, the Almeida’s semi-resident Little Lord Fauntleroy, inexplicably cast as the Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas of no one’s nightmares — or dreams. While one applauds Hare’s desire to concoct a scenario that is neither the elegant history lesson of Off Broadway’s ongoing “Gross Indecency” nor the Wilde-for-beginners of the current British film “Wilde,” the resulting “faction” is difficult to assess, since its lead actors so defy belief. Neeson’s return to the stage after 12 years in Britain and five in the United States may ensure strong box office both here and in New York. But it is Judi Dench’s putative Broadway transfer next season in another Hare play, “Amy’s View,” that looks far more likely to set Gotham alight.
In some ways, “The Judas Kiss” is both quintessential Hare and a significant departure. One can understand the British theater’s foremost arbiter of Englishness being quickly drawn to a dangerous liaison that can be said to embody the Anglo-Irish divide: the Celtic outsider, Wilde, against the aristocratic Englishman, Bosie, who inhabits his own prison of status and class even as his better-known lover is landed in Reading Gaol. In its own way, this play takes as incisive a scalpel to Hare’s home country (the second act is rife with anti-England jokes) as his recent trilogy of plays about Britain’s “institutions.”
And given the defense of the theater that brings “Amy’s View” to its spine-tingling conclusion, who could allow for a more exuberantly theatrical follow-up than Wilde, an aesthete and bon vivant who — as Martin Shaw’s Wilde surrogate, Lord Goring, in Peter Hall’s recent “An Ideal Husband” reminded us — saw life as a performance?
Hare, too, writes wrenchingly of emotional flashpoints (“Skylight,” anyone?), which should make him a per-fect conjurer of the Bosie-Wilde relationship at two crucial moments in a pairing that was, as everyone by now knows, far from ideal. Add an exuberantly lush first-act London design by Bob Crowley that gives way to a shimmering Italian seascape in act two, and you have the ingredients for the sort of event that Hare’s six-play partnership with the invaluable director Richard Eyre has come to represent.
New to Hare is the status of “The Judas Kiss” as a history play of sorts, featuring an emotional unraveling rooted in fact that, frankly, this time around doesn’t deliver much surprise. While Anthony Hopkins’ Lambert le Roux in Hare and Howard Brenton’s “Pravda” over a decade ago constituted a thinly veiled — and extraordinary — riff on Rupert Murdoch, Neeson and Hollander have to play real, widely portrayed (at least of late) people.
And there the problems begin. It’s one thing to be cast against type, as the often colorful Peter Capaldi on this occasion is, playing an anxious and rather clotted Robbie Ross, Wilde’s first lover. It’s quite another to be so perversely cast against the grain that you surrender a sense of logic: For all its grounding in the truth, or at least (a Wildean paradox here) an imagined version of it, the play as played doesn’t make much sense.
There’s no lack of urgency to the situation at the start, with the playwright rooted to London’s Cadogan Hotel and a lobster lunch even as the populace in 1895 London is baying — following the accusations of “gross indecency” — for his blood. Why does he not accept Ross’ entreaties and skip the country? The answer prompts speculation from Hare that ups the rhetorical stakes in a superior second act set two years later, by which point a broken, if stoical, Wilde has been exiled to Italy, awaiting the poisonous kiss of the title.
“Love is not the illusion; life is,” says Neeson’s Wilde, and the actor is far more convincing in floppy-haired, fleshy decline than in a first act that presents him before the fall, an empathic figure, to be sure, but far from the provocateur and wit of legend. Husky-voiced and under-energized to start with, Neeson thankfully opts against any portrait of an oversize, mincing queen. What’s missing are the fiery intellect and saber-like way with a phrase — both of which clearly reside in the text — that get subsumed within an oddly tentative portrait of Wilde as humanist: Oscar Wilde as Oskar Schindler.
Still, Neeson is as obviously game for a challenge as he is sure to improve. More troubling is that so literally mammoth a spirit would spend five minutes with Hollander’s arrogant twit of a Bosie, a preening and needy upstart who renders Wilde’s attachment merely foolish. (Jude Law’s screen Bosie, by contrast, possesses the needed reptilian allure, rooted in the same mixture of sexual confidence and self-hatred that could be said to define Hare’s traitor.)
And while an actor’s height is immutable, his potential for intimacy is not: No spark, however fitful, exists between the diminutive Hollander and a star seemingly twice his size, and Hollander’s external, pinched nasality defuses the second-act apologia in which Bosie makes his case. (Rupert Penry-Jones, Pip in the National’s recent “Chips With Everything,” is one of many young English actors who might have filled the role better.) In “The Judas Kiss” we’re left with a merely odd couple even as the lethal potential of love lies — so far, anyway — outside the production’s embrace.