Wisdom Bridge Theatre

Viewed from a distance, Oscar Wilde’s novel can seem a dated portrait of narcissism run amok. The title character of The Picture of Dorian Gray is an exotic, a beautiful youth who finds himself slowly corrupted by three influences–a book by Huysmans, a portrait painted by his admirer Basil Hallward, and the man to whom Hallward introduces him, the decadent Lord Henry Wotton.

Lord Henry, a sybarite who has made insincerity into a system, worships Dorian’s beauty and youth as if the surface were the soul. He exposes the innocent lad to a world of delicious, if sometimes illicit, pleasures–from Wagner to rare tapestries. Slowly Dorian begins to believe creation has set him apart; freed to “find” himself (no matter the cost to others), he’s seduced into a career of hedonism that culminates in murder.

To the Victorians, who maintained that sin would out, Wilde’s 1891 novel seemed particularly perverse. Basil’s painting registers–and absorbs into invisibility–Dorian’s descent into vice, allowing him to remain in deceptive appearance the pure, young, beautiful 20-year-old he was when his 18 years of heedless pleasure seeking began. In this neo-Faustian bargain (where, chillingly, the surrender comes too slowly to be noticed), the sins of the golden youth are visited on the canvas, which fully registers the horrors of Dorian’s debauchery.

Dorian tries to destroy this visible proof by, plunging a knife into the painting; a sensational touch, this action carries a Gothic thrill not found in Wilde’s equally moralizing plays An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance. But today that Grand Guignol ending resembles a melodramatic rip-off of Poe or Hoffmann. Besides, nowadays so many live as if they’re operating under a special dispensation that the novel has lost some of its power to shock.

But Dorian Gray hasn’t lost the power to fascinate. What still resonates is the author’s ambivalence about his “hero,” so unlike the morally rigid Victorian tract heroes Wilde despised. The playwright both wants Dorian to enjoy himself to the utmost and dreads the consequences. As much as Basil or Lord Henry, Wilde worships Dorian, especially his sadistic arrogance, which appeals to the masochists it attracts. (It’s no accident in a way that Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s handsome nemesis, resembled Dorian in several ways and greatly admired the book.)

If Wilde tempts us with the wish to be eternally young and beautiful, he also knows that the painting can’t purge Dorian, that his guilt flourishes despite the portrait. In the end, as with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, there’s no separating the wish from the deed or the canvas from the consequences. (Interestingly, in the preface Wilde declares “All art is quite useless,” but his painting is as efficient a moral engine as any revelation in Ibsen or O’Neill.)

Terry McCabe’s Wisdom Bridge staging, using a new adaptation by Paul Edwards, treats Dorian Gray as more than a study in arrested degeneration or homoerotic titillation. McCabe sees the novel as a modernday parable: Dorian Gray as the prototypical adult child, a monster of self-indulgence and solipsism who wants it all–but not the responsibility for how he’s gotten it.

Dorian does resemble a creature of the 1980s as much as of the 1880s. Lord Henry’s insidious advice–“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing. Live the wonderful life that is in you”–resembles today’s simpleminded self-help therapies (from Buscaglia to Bradshaw, they offer the shrewdest validation of selfishness since Ayn Rand). A snob who believes other people aren’t real, Dorian is a proto-yuppie. It’s easy to imagine him thriving on junk bonds and hostile takeovers–until he too gets downsized.

Employing multiple narrators, Edwards’s absorbing new version fleshes in the darker elements Wilde ignored, indulging instead his brilliant wit. As always with story theater, we have characters who describe themselves in ways they cant possibly know. But Edwards keeps these anomalies under control. And to bring the portrait to life, he adds a second, hideous Dorian who, as if to confirm the corruption, finally enters the action. He also acts as the play’s love interest: in the play’s one tender moment, the two Dorians kiss.

But what really matters in a novel-turned-drama is whether the acting lifts the work off the page. McCabe’s forces serve the story telling well but bring little urgency or tension to what we see. Fortunately, what we hear is delicious enough. Wilde’s elegant ripostes leaven the decadence, and Kevin Gudahl is fully at ease with Lord Henry’s epigrams; he’s equally skilled at spinning a libertine’s suave con. In the end the wit turns to gallows humor as his Lord Henry succumbs to syphilitic decay, and Gudahl conveys it all with palpable pain.

As the public Dorian, Mark Rafael Truitt is every inch the beauty the part requires, but he’s less confident about the cruelty (and the accent). That’s a shame–it could be chilling to see the evil the others can’t. And why leave it all to the painting–the second Dorian–to suggest? In the less developed part of the alter ego, Gunnar Branson, equally handsome, explores the nasty subtexts Truitt avoids.

As Basil, Dorian’s good angel, Harry Althaus nicely underlines the purity of the man’s ardor. Considering that he’s more used to playing bitchy evil, Althaus shows considerable restraint, but he can’t obscure the goody-goody side of Wilde’s idealized artist. Jennifer Roberts agonizes well as Dorian’s first victim, an actress who loses her art and her heart; Patrick McNulty has a strong moment as Dorian’s terrified final victim, whom he’s blackmailed. (It’s as if Wilde were looking into his own future.)

Jeff Bauer’s lushly textured green-and-burgundy set is rich with period decor, but it doesnt really come to life until the end. Claudia Boddy’s elegant fin de siecle costumes represent their own Wildean triumph of appearance over reality, or at least style over skin. But I’ll leave the bons mots to the master.