Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has inspired no less than six screen adaptations, including the classic 1945 Hollywood version with Hurd Hatfield as the young Faustian figure who barters his soul for eternal youth and gratification. Four musical stage incarnations recently roamed the regional theaters. Straight plays (no pun intended) adapted from the novel appear to be somewhat rarer. The Variety archives lists only one, circa 1966.
Joe O’Byrne’s “Dorian Gray” is the latest, and it is the kind of too-faithful-to-the-source adaptation that exemplifies why Wilde, best known for his plays, opted for a more expansive literary form for this tale. Fortunately, O’Byrne’s inventive direction often takes liberties that arrest the eye just when your ear has tuned out the text.
Wilde’s only novel, published in 1891, preceded his first great stage success, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” by a year. When his publisher thought a somewhat longer novel would sell better, Wilde promptly padded “Dorian Gray” with a few new chapters. The result is a sometimes meandering parable on man’s incapability to lead life based on aestheticism. The novel never quite matches the brilliance of his concept — the portrait that ages and grows corrupt while its subject remains unadulterated by the passage of time and the accumulation of his sins.
Onstage, paintings always pose a bit of a problem. They inspire contemplative, reactive responses better suited to the movies. O’Byrne solves this problem by turning the demons represented in the increasingly befouled painting into a chorus of fairly horny extras who get it on whenever the beautiful Dorian gazes at the ugliness of his soul in paint.
This chorus occasionally joins the constantly roving narrator, aka Shadow One, in helping to tell the tale. It isn’t a particularly complicated story, but Dorian does get around, traveling from London’s better drawing rooms and gardens to some of the city’s more intriguing waterfront pubs and dens of iniquity. Unfortunately, the wealth of narration is such that the play often resembles a reading more than an unfolding drama.
O’Byrne squeezes in all of Wilde’s witticisms, lifted directly from the pages of the novel, at the expense of dramatic drive. More significant, he bogs down Dorian Gray’s first romantic attachment, the actress Sybil Vane (Tertia Lynch), by spending too much stage time with her mother, Mrs. Vale (Angela Pierce), a character of no apparent consequence.
The relationship of note here, of course, is that of the two men, Dorian and his intellectual seducer, Lord Henry (Daniel Pearce). The latter is an absentee Mephistopheles, and O’Byrne has him disappear for far too long after he sets his Adonis disciple to contemplating the art of his own face.
As Lord Henry, Pearce’s way with an epigram is a bit precious. In contrast with the film’s Hatfield, who gave one of the screen’s great non-performances, Crispin Freeman is more demonstrative and closer to the excessively romantic figure in the novel, who “cried” more often than he “said” anything.
Elsewhere, it’s difficult to judge the performances. O’Byrne overloads his play with so many scenes that characters come and go before his actors have had a chance to register. An exception is Andrew Seear’s exquisitely rendered profile of anguish as Dorian’s portraitist, Basil.
As a director of stage pictures, O’Byrne establishes a surer, not to mention a more fanciful, footing. Japanese influences dominated the graphic arts of the 1890s, and it is entirely appropriate that he populates his stage here with shrouded puppeteers from Bunraku, masks from Noh and choral elements from Kabuki.
Bob Flanagan’s masks borrow from Bosch and various episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” Designers Akira Yoshimura and Rebecca Vary provide two levels and several windows, through which much of the action unfolds at a tantalizing distance. Top honors on the production side must go to Brian Nason’s inventive lighting design, as when Freeman’s extravagant hair casts a long shadow that renders the face of Dorian completely unfathomable.