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Jewish Journal

The Jewish Connection

The Arts


by Naomi Pfefferman

February 26, 1998 | 7:00 pm

'We have a profound understanding of whatit is not to belong'

-- Moisés Kaufman, director of'Gross Indecency'

The Jewish Connection

to Oscar Wilde

By Naomi Pfefferman,Senior Writer

Above, (left to right), J. Todd Adams, MitchellAnderson, Michael Emerson, Edie Bowz and Benjamin Livingston in"Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." Director Kaufman,below.

The ruin of Oscar Wilde, the brilliant19th-century writer and wit, began with a misspelled note scrawled ona calling card: "Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite" (sic).

The card led to a trial, then a second and athird; the flamboyant poet, playwright, novelist and critic wassentenced to two years' hard labor in Reading Gaol. He was punishedbecause he was an outsider: an Irishman in London, a homosexual, aradical aesthete in Victorian England.

Assuch, he has become the obsession of another outsider,writer-director Moisés Kaufman, who has made Wilde the subjectof his highly acclaimed play, "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials ofOscar Wilde," now at the Taper.

At various times of his life, Kaufman, 34, haslived apart from the mainstream: He has been a Jew growing up inCatholic Venezuela; a homosexual student at a yeshiva; an artist at abusiness university; a Latino in America; and a New York playwrightwhose first language is Spanish.

So Kaufman returns time and again to what he callsthe Jewish connection to Oscar Wilde and the "Jewish spirit" of hisplay. "Jews really understand this piece," Kaufman says during arecent rehearsal break. "We have a profound understanding of what itis not to belong."

For Kaufman, the persecution of Wilde is somehowconnected to the trials of his father, a Romanian-born Holocaustsurvivor who spent much of his childhood hiding from the Nazis in adank cellar. There, he celebrated his bar mitzvah; his clothing wasmade from a red velvet curtain that was stolen from an abandonedtheater -- which, Moisés cynically quips, foreshadows his ownstage career.

Kaufman says that his acting career effectivelybegan as he mimicked the popular heterosexual boys at his Caracasyeshiva, where he "desperately longed to fit in." Privately, he felta despair that lessened only when he discovered the word "homosexual"in the dictionary: "I started laughing and crying at the same time,"he says, "because that meant there was at least one other person inthe world like me."

Despite becoming a top actor in Venezuela by age23, Kaufman fled to New York to avoid, at least for a time, theinevitable confrontation with his family and with the Jewishcommunity he loved. Like his father and, in a way, Wilde, he became astranger in a strange land.

After attending NYU's experimental theater wing,he founded the Tectonic Theater Project in 1992. He was an unknownartist working on the fringe when a friend gave him a copy of "TheWit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde" in the mid-1990s. At the back of theslim volume, Kaufman, who had previously read all of Wilde's playsand his novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," discovered somethingnew: transcripts from Wilde's trials. The director, riveted by theimage of an artist forced to defend his work in court, was motivatedto write his first play.

Kaufman began by reading every word Wilde had everwritten, and much of what has been written about Wilde. He perusedoriginal letters at NYU and obscure documents in London, and he wrotea spare, stylized script entirely drawn from trial transcripts andfirst-hand accounts.

In the play, narrators wearing Victorian suitsrecite accounts of the events from books and pamphlets they pluckfrom a long table, functioning almost as a Greek chorus.

"Gross Indecency" opened humbly with a meager$15,000 budget in a community center in Greenwich Village; theunknown star, Michael Emerson, previously could hardly find work onthe New York stage.

The show would have closed had Kaufman's wilypublicist not hand-delivered a letter to all the city's major critics-- a letter that began, "Pleading to dear Members of the Press." Soonthereafter, a New York Times critic wrote a rave review, othersfollowed, and the show became a $400,000 production OffBroadway.

Ironically, this play about an outsider has madeKaufman the consummate theater insider, with a world tour and a filmof "Gross Indecency" in the works. One hundred thousand people haveseen the show, which explores the role of art and the artist insociety. But for the writer-director, the play remains intenselypersonal.

Kaufman describes how a beloved uncle, anAuschwitz survivor, read an article about him in The New York Timesand was "devastated" to learn that his nephew was gay. Kaufmanresponded with a question: How could a Holocaust survivor condemn aman for being who he was? "My uncle called me, in tears," Kaufmansays. "He told me I was right. And that is one of the messages I hopepeople will take from the play."

The Wilde Bunch

By Charles Marowitz

Mike Doyle and Michael Emerson in "GrossIndecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde."

The recent outbreak of Wilde mania both on stageand in films is not difficult to understand. Of all the 19th-centuryplaywrights, Shaw included, Oscar Wilde is the most modern, even,incredibly, postmodern. His coruscating wit and "up yours" insolencehovers over the work of fashionable 20th-century playwrights such asJoe Orton, David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett, Caryl Churchilland a whole clutch of sardonic scalawags in fringe and studiotheaters throughout England.

In both his life and his work, he established theself-defacing grandiosity we associate with the word "camp." Hisoutrageous egotism, his power to deflate the most helium-stuffed ofall social windbags, his horror of practicality and disdain ofrespectability made him a culture hero in his own time, and, unlikesimilar icons whose statues have been rudely toppled in our century,he has frequently had new monuments erected in his honor both inEurope and America.

The man who, on his deathbed, could look up with apained expression and say, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do," wasmining a vein of humor so far away from Shaw's or Gilbert's or LewisCarroll's as to be in an entirely unrelated mental universe.

Wilde's homosexuality was the inescapable fact ofhis life. His allusions to it, always highly parodied, made it noless frightening or dangerous. Moises Kaufman's collage of the threetrials of Oscar Wilde, entitled "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials ofOscar Wilde," now at the Mark Taper, is a brilliant editing job andproves again (as if it needed to be proved) that when ideas arestimulatingly arranged and dramatically expressed, the Theater ofIdeas is perhaps the highest form of theater we can have.

Kaufman has cunningly grafted together tellingexcerpts from the biographies, Wilde's own work and newspaperaccounts of the period, and, as a result, we get a compressed versionof the writer's legal crucifixion, as was never obtained in the PeterFinch or Robert Morley films allegedly telling the same story.

Wilde, invariably caricatured as a flamboyantdandy with the tongue of a drag queen and the hauteur of a fop,emerges here as the vulnerable and pathetic figure he must have beenduring these judicial onslaughts. This is due mainly to MichaelEmerson's understated performance, which perfectly depicts the way inwhich Wilde cloaked his pain with pride and his weakness with wit.This is not the coruscating and charismatic Wilde that thunders outof Ellman's biography, but then at this juncture in his life, he wasvainly trying to be upright and respectable -- a hopeless guise for aman of Wilde's anarchic temperament. There was probably no moreludicrous a spectacle in England than Wilde balanced on his highhorse, whipping it toward the moral high ground, the very turf he sopowerfully demolished both in his life and work.

What "Gross Indecency" makes perfectly clear isthat when a literary aesthete tries to justify himself in thehardheaded precincts of "the real world," tragedy can be the onlyoutcome.

Kaufman's only miscalculation occurs in the firstscene of Act 2, where some critical pundit in a mock interviewgauchely tries to define the intellectual nuances of Wilde'shomosexuality. Since everything else in the play has been purloinedfrom historical sources, I assume that little vignette was alsospawned from some lecture or other, but its anachronism looms on thesurface of the play like a wart on the face of a woman with anotherwise perfect complexion.

The play also gives a certain new definition tothe weaselly character of Lord Alfred Douglas, temperately played byMike Doyle. Given the breadth of Wilde's intellect, the brilliance ofhis wit and the infallibility of his artistic taste, it is incredibleto imagine him going gaga for such a puling, vindictive andtalentless git. Bosie was not only his downfall but the only aspectof Wilde's life that seriously leads us to question his genius. Iguess, as Auden says, we really "cannot choose what we are free tolove." But how convenient it would be, if we could.

The remainder of the all-male cast, whose greateststrengths appear to be Eddie Bowz, Geraint Wyn Davies, SimonTempleman and Hal Robinson, has been rigorously drilled and succeedsin dispensing text as if it were music, even to the point ofproviding its own percussive accompaniments. But conceptually anddirectorially, this is Kaufman's achievement. He has managed to imbuean old and familiar literary scandal with the kind of freshness andélan one associates with the immediacy of today's headlinesand, in so doing, has given us a new and compelling dimension to thecharacter of Oscar Wilde.

Down at the Actors' Gang, David Schweizer, one ofthe most fecund and imaginative young directors in Los Angeles, hasattempted to do something similar with Wilde's "Salome." To escapethe turgid and hierarchical character of this prose-poem, he hasdipped it in a great vat of absurdist comedy and peppered it freelywith "the camp aesthetic." If the best comedy grows out of realsituations, it may well follow that the worst is predicated onartifice. Artifice is the very clay of Wilde's play, and stumping forcomedy where there is none is like masturbating a plasticbanana.

Schweizer has wisely dumped Lord Alfred Douglas'intolerable translation and substituted a somewhat more streamlinedversion by the poet Richard Howard -- but the inescapable fact isthat although a brilliant playwright, an impressive essayist and aninspired storyteller, Wilde was an awful poet, and, even in Howard'swinnowed-down version, one winces at Wilde's penchant forpurple-prose and attempts to achieve poetic effect simply by daubingpastel shades over familiar objects.

The comic aspect of this production is full ofmawkish camp mugging, and one can actually feel ulcers forming inone's duodenum as it is being played out. Only in the last moments ofthe work, when comic schtick are mercifully abandoned, does the playbegin to cast the very spell it was intended to exert. But by thattime, we have been too bludgeoned by horseplay and slapstick, tooalienated by a flat-chested and androgynous "Salome" with the vocalrange of a pennywhistle and an Herod who comes on like a flaming dragqueen from "Cage Aux Folles" to give a damn.


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