Review by Karen Topham; photos by Steve Graue
City Lit’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those shows that ought to work better than it does. A strong piece of literature to adapt, a Jeff Ward winning adapter, great direction, and at least one outstanding performance: it would seem that it all adds up to a positive review. However, something went significantly awry with this one, and it begins with the adaptation. Paul Edwards’ script relies far too heavily on narration and makes a couple of key changes to the Oscar Wilde story of a man so in love with youth that he makes a foolish wish that his portrait would age instead of him, and the wish is granted: one (placing the story in 1970s New York) that works fine and one (removing the gothic part completely) that, while interesting, defies logic. Add to that a few fairly plebeian performances outside of that one superb one, and you get this review instead.
I should state at the outset that I am a huge fan of the Oscar Wilde novel on which this play is based. Nineteenth-Century gothic psychological studies like this one or Henry James’ A Turn of the Screw are always great subjects. And I have no problem with narration per se; see Goodman’s A Christmas Carol for an excellent example of how to turn that century’s prose into a strong piece of theatre. Here, though, the usually reliable Edwards has crafted a script that relies so much on the narrative that he even uses it in places where the moment should clearly have been left to the actor. Example: in one sequence we are told while it is happening that a character stops at the doorway, reconsiders his actions, and then decides to leave. Seriously: shouldn’t the performance have been enough to let us see that?
Perhaps director Andrea J. Dymond, who keeps the production moving along at a strong pace and who uses the narration as well as she can, allowing the narrators to interact with the characters as much as possible, lacked faith in her central performer. Javier Ferraira’s Dorian Gray is an interesting enough creation, but it lacks the depth that one would associate with such a complex character. Part of that is the role itself: from the very beginning, Dorian is shown to be a spoiled rich kid, but Ferraira is not able to give him much life beyond that caricature. Even when Dorian succumbs to a kind of madness created by his eternal youth and growing narcissism and dives headfirst into the world of drug abusers (a 1970s-era crack house standing in for the 1880s opium den), Ferraira rarely rises above the cliché. We’re not supposed to like Dorian, but I simply never cared about him. I never even believed him to be all that narcissistic, which is a central component of his character, nor did I believe him capable of some of the most despicable actions that Wilde and Edwards have him do.
Equally responsible for that is the flat characterization of the painter Basil Hallward (Gabriel Fries), here transformed into a 70s photographer. When the play begins with an extended scene between these two characters, it is incumbent upon the actors to show more than a single layer to develop audience interest. Neither one does, and the result is that Dorian is abstruse and Basil is simply there. (To be fair, the latter is as much the fault of the script as anything else.) Fortunately, there is a third performance that nearly saves things. Scott Olson’s Henry Wotten is a gem: from the beginning we see this wealthy, snobbish, sarcastic man as someone who has his own agenda that doesn’t necessarily care about the well-being of his friends and yet is somehow likable. It’s a clever balancing act aided by the fact that Edwards’ script preserves many of the bon mots Wilde gave Henry, giving Olson more to play with than, say, Fries has with his character. Even late in the play, when Henry is sick and dying and confined to a wheelchair, Olson manages to keep up the same wily wit that has defined him throughout the play despite having to punctuate it with coughs and wheezes.
Two other fairly strong performances come from Alyssa Thordarson and from Ryan Leonard, both of whom play multiple roles. Thordarson’s Sybil Vane is lovely: the actress finds both the exuberance of young love and the difference between good and bad performances of Romeo and Juliet (Sybil is an actress). Leonard plays Alan, an old frenemy of Dorian, and James Vane, the angry brother of Sybil, and though he (like Fries) isn’t given much to work with, he manages to create some memorable moments with it. The final member of this ensemble is Stephen Rosenberger, again in multiple roles. His crack dealer is the most memorable of these, though his accent seemed to me more Boston than New York.
It all comes back to Edwards’ script though. Setting the play in the 1970s has the advantage of allowing Dorian’s closeted bisexuality to come out much more clearly than in the Wilde original, and that leads to an oblique reference to the early stages of the AIDS crisis, but it also sticks us with a photograph of Dorian instead of a painting. It’s a very good photograph, but photographs (even if we are to believe they can change in Wilde’s deeply gothic way) lack the texture and dimensionality that allows Wilde’s portrait to capture not only the aging of Dorian’s body but the excesses of his sins, oozing and cracking and bleeding as it grows “older.” In deference to this, perhaps, Edwards makes the aging only a part of Dorian’s imagination, a deeply psychological adjustment that unfortunately ignores the unchanging youth of the character—attested to by observers—and also renders the final scene ridiculously illogical. And a second act that seems to be mostly narrated (Thordason’s second act narrator became so much a part of the play that she ended up sharing the final bow with Ferraira) took me out of the moment far too much.
Bottom line: this was a promising idea that fails to capture that promise. Read the book instead.
The Portrait of Dorian Gray is now playing at City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr in Chicago, until April 15. Performance times vary; check website. Tickets are available from City Lit Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.