`Gross Indecency' doesn't do justice to Wilde

Theater

January 24, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Fell's Point Corner Theatre is tackling the off-Broadway hit "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." Like Wilde, this is an act of considerable daring; unlike him, the production is largely lacking in style.

Moises Kaufman's frequently repetitive script is compiled from various sources, including contemporary accounts of the trials, Wilde's own work and "The Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas," the young man whose relationship with Wilde landed the famed writer in court and eventually in jail. The sources are identified throughout the play by the cast members, most of whom play multiple roles.

The play's deliberately self-conscious structure is challenging to pull off. In New York, Kaufman, who directed the original production, chose a streamlined approach that emphasized the role of research -- and its varying views -- by placing a long, book-laden table at the front of the stage. At Fell's Point, director Barry Feinstein has attempted to inject a note of naturalism into the proceedings. It's a choice that not only comes across as overly busy, but is stylistically at odds with the overt theatricality of the material (and of Wilde himself).

The production is further hampered by something that sounds petty but turns out to be a major distraction. As Wilde, the usually accomplished Patrick Martyn wears a page-boy wig that looks so phony, it drains most of the humanity out of a performance that already suffers from an excess of posturing and declaiming.

Still, there are a number of impressive performances. Among the ensemble members who move fluidly from role to role are Rodney Bonds, Jason Turner and Morgan Stanton, who is especially amusing as an American professor being interviewed by the playwright. In addition, Kevin Chap is notable as Lord Douglas, although his portrayal is almost too sympathetic for a character with a dangerously selfish streak.

With its slick presentational format and layers of commentary on everything from art to sexuality and justice, "Gross Indecency" is a kind of courtroom collage, with a human heart straining to beat underneath (at one point, a heartbeat is actually heard underlying the dialogue). Ultimately, this production can't maintain the needed delicate balance and these "Three Trials" prove too much of a trial.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, except Feb. 6, which is 7 p.m.; through Feb. 13. Tickets are $11 and $12. Call 410-276-7837.

Minimally `Haunting'

When a play is titled "The Haunting of Hill House," it sets up certain expectations -- primarily that the show will be scary. If you're susceptible to being frightened -- as I am -- the expectation alone may be enough to give you the creeps.

At the Vagabond Players, however, that prospect is just about the only thing liable to scare you. The play is adapted by F. Andrew Leslie from Shirley Jackson's novel, which, in turn, inspired two movies, both titled simply "The Haunting" -- a 1963 version starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom and a 1999 remake starring Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Liam Neeson.

Jackson was a master at creating psychologically chilly moments (although the movie remake larded on the special effects to the point of absurdity). The stage version, however, is more numbing than chilling.

Director Linda Chambers has assembled an able cast, but there simply isn't much to work with. In an attempt to determine whether an 80-year-old house is haunted, a scientist has summoned two women sensitive to psychic phenomenon, along with the heir who will inherit the property.

John W. Ford evinces a nice sense of irreverence as the heir; Gina Di Peppe is an appropriately flamboyant psychic; and Bethany Sparks evokes a modicum of sympathy as the house's chief victim. You never really fear for her safety, however, because the danger doesn't seem real, and even if it were, she's the most willing victim a haunted house could hope for. All in all, this is a thriller for the weak of heart.

Show times at the Vagabonds, 806 S. Broadway, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 6. Tickets are $12. Call 410-563-9135.

Setback for `Guerre'

The checkered career of the musical "Martin Guerre" continued last week when it was announced that the show -- which recently concluded a four-week engagement at Washington's Kennedy Center -- has indefinitely postponed its Broadway opening. The inability to secure an appropriate theater was the reason given by producer Cameron Mackintosh.

The musical, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the creators of "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon," is completing its United States tour, however. Currently in Seattle, the show opens in Los Angeles next month.

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