PULLED IN MANY DIRECTIONS James Noel Hoban as Oscar Wilde.
In the center of Gross Indecency's simple, book-laden set sits a single green carnation in a crystal vase. It's a fitting homage to the play's subject, the brilliant and flamboyant playwright Oscar Wilde — not just for its rather showy elegance, and not just because Wilde is known as having worn and popularized it as a Victorian-era homosexual symbol, but because of its origin myth: Apparently, Wilde called for green carnations (which no florist had yet heard of) on opening night of Lady Windemere's Fan, for the lapels of the actors and certain friends in the audience, an in-joke publicity stunt. It's quintessential Wilde: playful extravagance, the complicated relationship between private and public lives. They're among the qualities that dominate his agonizing days in court, which are dramatized in Dramatic Repertory Company's ensemble production of Moisés Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, directed by Keith Powell Beyland.
The lawsuit against famous, wealthy, freewheeling Wilde (an impassioned James Noel Hoban) begins only after he first brings his own suit against the coarse, bigoted Marquess of Queensberry (Seth Berner, whose ugly barking recalls a malignant Yosemite Sam). Queensberry is the outraged father of Wilde's much younger lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Benedetto Robinson), and has publicly (and in entertaining verbal error) called Wilde a "somdomite." Lord Alfred, in love but fiercely embittered toward his dad, and perhaps not a little manipulative (Robinson nicely conveys ambivalence in the beautiful and spoiled young lord), has pushed him to press charges on grounds of libel, which backfires when the defense (Matt Delamater, excellently predatory) goes on the offensive with some embarrassing witnesses. Wilde's lawyer (Chris Newcomb) gets the charges dropped, but the fuse has been lit, and soon Wilde himself will be in the defendant's seat, his works, his letters, and his person held up for public disgust.
Kaufman tells the saga in documentary pastiche fashion, with the bracing courtroom exchanges based on actual transcripts, and an ensemble of narrators, stationed in place up the house steps, acting as a Greek chorus. They recite a rapid-fire barrage of exposition and footnotes from news reports, editorials, and reviews of the day, as well as biographies and autobiographies of the key players and Wilde's own writings. Even modern sources are occasionally used, as when the second act opens with a scholar in a red cardigan being interviewed about the creation of "homosexual" as a primary identity, which he attributes to Wilde, and the implications of Wilde's denial of the charges.
This is an ambitious approach on Kaufman's part, to say the least: There are heavy big-picture cultural and moral questions at overt play, and a whole lot of textual material to synthesize dramatically. At the play's best, these heighten the drama and Wilde's tragedy; other times they slow the pace or risk over-intellectualizing what does need to be, at the end of the day, a narrative and emotional arc. Given this challenge, Beyland's ensemble does an admirable job of keeping things swift and compelling (though there were some line fumbles opening weekend, and accents sometimes seem used and omitted a little arbitrarily), and the narrators do some engaging character work as porters, rogues, and even Queen Victoria (Anna Barnett, drolly). Hoban is moving in Wilde's stoicism and rage alike, and when the writer is shown in moments of intimacy — with Lord Alfred, or with an old friend who lies on the stand for him (Delamater, in another strong portrayal) — the brief exchanges light up the stage.