Oscar Wilde was a late 19th-century wit, wastrel, and brazenly flouncing esthete. Through the countless repetitions of such assessments over the intervening century, the verdict of history should be in. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which Brown University Theatre and Sock & Buskin is staging through October 6, is not disputing such claims, simply (and complexly) pointing out that history shouldn't be so cocksure of itself.
This is the play that Moisés Kaufman and his collaborative Tectonic Theater Project impressed audiences with so well in 1997 that enthusiastic Off-Off-Broadway theatergoers promptly applauded it into a larger theater. A New York Times rave soon assured its longevity.
Directed by Kym Moore, nine of the vest-and-cravat-wearing actors leap into 35 characters while Brian Cross remains Oscar Wilde. Composed, self-satisfied, Wilde smiles smugly throughout most of his ordeal, until eventually brought to his knees by the furies of social opprobrium he himself unleashed.
He was the instigator because he launched the first trial, suing for libel the outraged father of a young lover. Wilde objected not because the allegation was inaccurate ("Oscar Wilde: posing sodomite," on a publicly displayed calling card) but because he needed to continue pretending it was untrue or risk ostracism from "good" society. The pretense was as natural and necessary as oxygen to him. All the irony, misdirection, and wink-wink-nudge-nudging that he maintained in his writings and his life was a matter of bemusement in the former but sheer survival in the latter.
There was a cover story that explained Wilde's flamboyant behavior: he was a prominent progenitor of the Aestheticism Movement of the time. For litterateurs, this involved depicting life as burning with intensity. Ardent love between an older man and a younger one, supposedly platonic, was the application of the philosophy that Wilde promulgated and defended in his trials.
The object of Wilde's affections was the young Lord Alfred Douglas (Connor Kane), who was 20 when they met, when the author was 36. Known as "Bosie," by all accounts except this one the spoiled aristocrat was a petulant and demanding horror story of a lover. He is portrayed fairly sympathetically in the play, to the point of emphasizing that he was upset to the end of his life about not being called in the first trial to defend Wilde.
His father (Josh Wallace) was the Marquess of Queensberry — yes, that Queensberry, the pugnacious aristocrat after whom the boxing rules were named. "I don't say that you are it, but you look it" is the kindest remark he ever makes to Wilde, and he all but snarls when he speaks to his son. Oddly, the actors playing father and son seemed to be engaged in role reversal. Kane delivers a good performance, especially toward the end when he controls the young man's distraught frame of mind. But he is more physically imposing than the diminutive Wallace, who seems less like a father than a cranky younger brother. As irony, the value is incidental. Gender-neutral casting is one thing (Ellen Shadburn is excellent as prosecuting attorney Sir Edward Clarke), but casting against stage presence is simply messing with us.