Gross Indecency is perhaps less of a work of fiction than the other two contemporary Wilde dramas, because it's culled almost entirely from court transcripts as well as Wilde's letters and excerpts from his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, his essay "De Profundis" (written while in prison), and his letters to Douglas. In fact, you might call it theater's answer to the documentary film. With the exception of John Felix, who plays Wilde, each of the nine actors in the cast plays multiple parts. This splitting up of duties allows a parade of talking heads to cross the stage, from George Bernard Shaw and Queen Victoria to the slew of working-class male prostitutes who, dressed in their underwear, give evidence against Wilde in court.
Likewise portrayed are various London journalists declaring Wilde's court experience as "the trial of the century," as well as the prosecutors, defense attorney, Wilde's wife (yes, he was married, with two children), his mother, and the man who procured boys for him. Douglas and Douglas' father are played, respectively, by Gordon Brode and Steve Wise, both deft performers who handle fewer secondary roles but bring memorable profiles to their primary characters. What also gives the play a documentary feel is the presence of narrators (also played by revolving cast members), who describe scenes as they occur.
While the play doesn't give us a new perspective on Wilde, the Caldwell production, directed by artistic director Michael Hall and designed by Tim Bennet and Thomas Salzman, is quite simply beautiful. From its design -- in which actors and abstract scenery alike are outfitted in a black-to-gray color scheme -- to its razor-sharp pacing, the show exults in its own artistic universe.
Unlike the play's dialogue, in which the juxtaposition of Wilde's writing and his court testimony never creates any friction, the staging uses conflicting moods to great effect. The contrast between the somber attitudes of the Old Bailey judges and lawyers and the provocative, near-obscene Beardsley prints that line the stage points up the palpable tension between Wilde and the society in which he lived.
Foremost, John Felix's performance gives us a glimpse of Wilde as a living, breathing genius -- and a sympathetic one at that. A rotund middle-aged man who looks and moves a bit like the Cowardly Lion dressed in a morning coat, Felix resembles the later photographs of Wilde, when he no longer looked the long-haired boulevardier we often think of when we envision Wilde. He seems vulnerable and human.
The academic in the play's talk-show scene suggests that Wilde, a brilliant and confident wordsmith, succeeded only when he was able to "control the discourse" around him. Up against the legal discourse of the court, he was bound to fail. Felix's performance evokes this idea. His Oscar Wilde seems genuinely bewildered that his own wit cannot save him. Gross indecencies aside, Felix and the rest of the Caldwell performers and technicians give us a show we can be Wilde about.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.
Written by Moises Kaufman. Directed by Michael Hall. Starring Gordon Brode, Matthew Coyle, John Felix, John Hansen, Mark Heimann, Kenneth Kay, Michael Warga, Joe Warik, and Steve Wise. Through August 16. Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, 561-241-7432 or toll-free 930-6400.