In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde created a wry, entertaining novel that has also become a modern myth: the protagonist Dorian--based on the youthful-looking John Gray, whom Wilde was quietly courting at the time--remained young, seductive, and beautiful as his hidden portrait was transformed into an ugly, wretched, and aged figure.
Of course an exploration of the perils of narcissism itself was not new, and scholars say Wilde was influenced by Faust and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, among other works. But Wilde's novel not only aptly portrayed the gothic ambience and grandiloquent boredom of his age with savage humor, it simultaneously showed a new generation of aesthetes how to dress and act, avowing and disavowing the movement at the same time. ("The first duty of life is to assume a pose," he said. "What the second duty is no one has yet found out.")
Despite his own warning about the problems of aestheticism examined in Dorian Gray, Wilde acted as his own self-portrait, passing through transformations in attire and image as if starting each time with a new canvas. He did not believe in art for art's sake, but he believed fervently that life was art.
If a company has the ambition and confidence to produce an adaptation of Dorian Gray, it must also act out the myth or morality tale with spectacular style and fabulous wit. New Theatre Company's production has two significant problems it cannot ultimately overcome: an erratic adaptation and some tepid acting. Moments of humor and truth can be gleaned from the performance, but the ensemble is much too stingy with them. Even sadder, they can't find those moments themselves in the difficult, abridged Dorian Gray they've been handed.
David Benn comes closest to finding Wilde's intentions in the adaptation by Paul Edwards. Playing the aging seducer Lord Henry Wotton, he does achieve a certain style and attitude. Wotton is in many ways a lot of hot air with a walking cane, yet his seductive powers are also dangerous. Benn sometimes gets to the essence of his complicated character without overdoing him. ("I like persons better than principles," he says. "I like persons without principles best of all.")
Charlotte Akin looks absolutely ravishing in her period costumes (Akin is one of Dallas' treasured chameleons). But as Sybil Vane, she doesn't really get much of a part. She spends a lot of time looking beautiful, holding books or gaslights aloft. She embodies Wilde's comment--or Madonna's comment--about posing ("strike a pose, just get to it"), her face turned away from the audience, her eyes turned toward the players. I found her role as lurking expositor funny, but I think the device is supposed to be a serious one. I'm not sure.
Jim Hines is well cast as the plain-Jane artist Basil Hallward, who pours all his aesthetics into his work. But his English accent is really bad. Director Jim Jorgenson should've gotten a language coach in for a few weeks. Everyone except Akin falls into the trap of doing an English accent as if their cheeks were filled with cottonseed. It is distractingly bad.
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Two men play Dorian: primarily, the role is Robert Soroko's. The portrait, however, is played by Earl Browning III, and as the play progresses, Dorian 2 walks out of his gilded frame and narrates or plays Dorian as it is deemed useful. This device works well and is fairly intriguing.
Unfortunately, neither Soroko nor Browning exhibit strong acting ability here. Both had some problems with their lines the night I attended during the opening weekend. Soroko is a particularly flat and uneasy-seeming Dorian. Despite his pretty face, he does not live up to any of the delusions of grandeur and opulent corruption for which the role should allow. To his credit, Browning shows glimmers of sinister potential--he has an evil look and gait that he uses well. (Tracy Clinton, who played several roles, including a damned acquaintance of Dorian's, Alan Campbell, ably performed his characters.)
Dorian Gray continues to have a strong, lasting effect on its readers. This adaptation is too cursory and choppy, and the performances are too erratic, to be more than fun. A few moving scenes are pushed through by Benn's abilities, and there is some humor. But New Theatre's production offers much less than a perfect picture of Dorian Gray.
A footnote: I was happy to see a full house at the company's Swiss Avenue home. Almost every time I have attended their often brave productions, there have been about five people in the house. The Swiss Avenue Theater is a jewel, and some unusual productions are served up there. I'm glad people seem to have discovered it.