Alex Weisman and Cole Simon
Alex Weisman and Cole Simon Credit: Michael Brosilow

There’s a bar at the downstage end of the performance space; audience members can belly up before the show and buy a drink, picking either the red cocktail or the blue—a reference, perhaps, to the red and blue pills Morpheus offers Neo in The Matrix. Remember? “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Only the House Theatre of Chicago‘s world-premiere production of Dorian doesn’t give us even as many options as Neo gets. Choose the red, the blue, a Sprite, or no drink at all, you’ll still be heading down the rabbit hole.

Actually, “through the lookingglass” might be the more appropriate allusion here. Written by Ben Lobpries and Tommy Rapley, Dorian is a promenade-style adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the classic 1890 horror story by Oscar Wilde in which everything hangs on what a man finds reflected in his own image.

Wilde’s novel concerns a gorgeous young naif, the titular Mr. Gray, who becomes the toast of London’s smart society. When a friend paints his portrait, a strange alchemy occurs: Dorian neither ages nor displays the physical effects of his increasingly reckless lifestyle. Instead the portrait absorbs the years, crimes, and dissipations, growing progressively more grotesque—and therefore more reflective of the true state of Dorian’s soul—as time goes on.

This clever, visually striking House Theatre version updates Wilde’s tale to a rarified corner of the present. Collette Pollard’s environmental scenic design drops us into a Warholian world where chic, moneyed, mostly smug young aesthetes order drinks with names like Double Penetration and Sloppy Seconds while dancing among opalescent pillars that continually change color. Dorian materializes out of nowhere (and for no apparent reason), literally squirming in his timidity. His supernal hotness quickly attracts attention, however, and a crowd forms around him, the core of which consists of struggling gay painter Basil, art-scene doyenne Gladys, nerdy tagalong Alan, erotic performance artist Sybil, and fey critic Harry (who explains that he judges art because he hasn’t a “glimmer” of talent when it comes to making it). Soon Dorian has emerged from his shell far enough to have serial affairs with Sybil and Basil.

And soon after that the shell shatters entirely. Dorian ends up combining the attitude of a party kid with the ethics of a Machiavelli and the pathological charm of a Ted Bundy. One of the subtler triumphs of Cole Simon’s performance in the role is the hardening he manifests in his Rob Lowe-like features as Dorian falls farther and farther down the rabbit hole.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to what happens to the face and torso in the portrait. The Art Institute has the canvas Illinois-bred artist Ivan Albright painted for Albert Lewin’s 1945 movie of The Picture of Dorian Gray; though done in oils, it looks as if Albright dropped it in the Atlantic for a while, to get a barnacled, bloated, salt-stained, fish-nibbled look reminiscent of Ariel’s song from The Tempest—the one that goes, “Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes.” By contrast, Jeff Klapperich’s photo-based images for the House Theatre suggest Francis Bacon more than a sea change. Worms in red meat. Projected on the upstage wall of the theater, they offer a more dynamic vision of Dorian’s degradation/desiccation than Albright and Lewin could’ve hoped to achieve.

It’s a beautiful sort of ugliness. Indeed, the whole show pushes for, and often enough achieves, a debauched grace. As director, coauthor Rapley stages much of the action in a highly stylized manner that recalls the pedestrian choreographic language of the 1970s, building a powerful sense of character and place through gestural tics. Patrick Andrews‘s Basil, in particular, communicates a great deal in the way he habitually leans his body, head first, toward Simon’s Dorian. And a scene in which Alex Weisman’s Alan succumbs to his greatest desire/fear is stunningly effective. Even relatively small choices—such as depicting advancing age by drawing a band of white across the characters’ eyes—are extraordinary.

If only Rapley and Lobpries had lavished the same exquisite attention on the script. Certainly, there are narrative issues that could use a closer look, such as the lack of any backstory that would help us understand what makes Dorian act the way he does. But more important, the play doesn’t realize its potential in thematic terms. In a time like ours, when identity is as fluid as water, gender is a changing construct, and science makes the notion of eternal youth both a serious goal and a joke on Joan Rivers, Wilde’s story has plenty of resonance. The authors of Dorian seem willing to frame it as a critique of a decadent art world and let it go at that. They drop down the rabbit hole, sure—but not far enough.