- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Director Jeremy Skidmore makes an audacious move casting Cooper D’Ambrose, a 21-year-old senior at North Carolina School of the Arts, in the role of Oscar Wilde in his dynamic staging of “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” at the H Street Playhouse.

Wilde was in his early 40s during the sensational trials in the late 1890s, when scandal sheets had a field day reporting the author and professional aesthete’s views on morality and art, as well as his liaisons with various young men, including his longtime lover and muse, Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie.

The trials begin with Wilde defending himself against Bosie’s bullying father, the Marquess of Queensberry (the plummy-voiced Scott McCormick), who accuses him of being a “sodomite.”

Wilde viewed the trial as a trifle, a way to drop morsels of luscious wit upon the public. However, the proceedings swiftly took an ugly turn, and he not only lost his fight against Queensberry, but also was tried twice for acts of “gross indecency.” He was sentenced to two years’ hard labor, and he died in 1900, shortly after being released from jail.

Mr. D’Ambrose makes no attempt to look more mature for the role, opting instead to amplify the lamb-led-to-the-slaughter quality of the play by being a “slim gilt soul” like his lover Bosie. His Wilde is anything but the jaded and dissolute character we have come to associate with the man who “feasted with panthers” and changed theater, literature and sexual politics forever with his devastating wit.

Instead, there is a freshness to his portrayal, which brings unexpected vulnerability and poignancy to the production. Mr. D’Ambrose is an actor of unusual poise for one so young, and he seems to know the value of stillness, something most actors do not understand early in their careers.

A fellow student, Andrew Pastides, plays Bosie, an aristocrat who may have pushed Wilde into pressing charges to antagonize his father, with a touch of otherworldly snobbery that is at once pathetic and tragic. Both Bosie and Wilde were out of touch with the real world, a situation that may have heightened their senses but also brought about their downfall.

Mr. Skidmore magnifies the difference between the world of the courtroom and the realm of the pleasure seeker with energetic, documentary-style staging. Jacob Muehlhausen’s set involves four segments of tiered seating that frame the stage, making the audience the jury box. The sides of the set are littered with courtroom transcripts, books, newspapers, collections of Wilde’s plays and novels, and other documents that the actors pick up and refer to during the play.

In the center is a triangular platform with a revolving chair in the middle. Most often, it is Wilde sitting in the “hot seat,” though in the first trial, he appears to be lounging in the chair as if at the Savoy Hotel awaiting cocktails. As the play progresses, he takes on the defensive posture of a trapped exotic animal, unaccustomed to the unblinking stare of the masses.

With only a series of lighting cues and dizzying circular movement, an ensemble of actors expertly portrays the media and legal circus swirling about Wilde. Chris Davenport seems to have cornered the local market on playing lawyers, but his commanding portrayal of Wilde’s counsel is a standout, as is Jason Lott playing two preening young men for hire from the lower classes. Alexander Strain excels in every role he’s assigned, and Grady Weatherford brings a welcome light comedic touch to his various characters.

Playwright Moises Kaufman is the antithesis of his subject matter, preferring extensive discourse to Wilde’s pithy commentary. “Gross Indecency” feels wordy and overstuffed at times, and you may find the verbosity a trial in itself, especially after an unnecessarily protracted and twee introduction before the first act.

However, Mr. Skidmore’s confident and bracing approach to the material, coupled with the successful conceit of casting a young actor in the lead role, instills new life into Mr. Kaufman’s 1996 play. “Gross Indecency” inundates you with documents and historical facts yet never loses sight of its subject, a man whose last years were haunted with exile and ruin but whose wit and brilliance glitter unvanquished to this day.

*** 1/2

WHAT: “Gross Indecency” by Moises Kaufman

WHERE: H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Sept. 18.


PHONE: 800/494-8497


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