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Wilde's Fall Is Flat In Rep Stage's Judas Kiss

Dwight Tolar (left) and Nigel Reed in Rep Stage's The Judas Kiss

By Jack Purdy | Posted 2/7/2001

The Judas Kiss

David Hare

The most dramatic events in the life of Oscar Wilde were his trials and subsequent imprisonment for "gross indecency" with men. In 1997, exactly a century after Wilde's release, British playwright David Hare daringly created a work about Wilde that takes place during the periods just before the trials and just after his incarceration. Sporting the florid title The Judas Kiss, Hare's play is composed entirely of talk rather than action. The production now at Rep Stage, directed by Kasi Campbell, is an engrossing evening for confirmed Wildeans, but unless they carefully read the excellent theater program, others might wonder what the hell is going on. At the performance I attended, an audience member was overheard at intermission saying, "The acting's good, but the story sucks."

And the acting is indeed good, particularly the work of Nigel Reed as Wilde and Roger Kraus as Wilde's lover--and, to Hare, betrayer--Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas. Reed manages to capture Wilde's kindness and magnanimity, while also embodying the excruciating torpor that seized the Irish playwright after his downfall--the actor plays almost the entire second act sitting in an armchair. With his sleek blonde hair and trim figure, Kraus looks remarkably like the real-life Bosie of the 1890s, and he captures all the aristocratic selfishness that Hare ascribes to Douglas.

Yet as Wilde and Douglas quarrel, make up, and sift through the ashes of their relationship, both actors have to battle against a script that does almost nothing to explain that relationship, either in sexual or intellectual terms. As revealed by the title, Hare is plainly in the camp of those who blame Wilde's downfall entirely on Douglas, so this viewpoint might have kept him from giving Douglas any attractive characteristics, other than his looks. The lad's so unpleasant through so much of the play that it's impossible to see why the brilliant Wilde fell so hard for him. And when Robert Ross (Dwight Tolar), Wilde's first male lover and dearest friend, demands to know what hold Douglas has over the playwright, Wilde won't say. This is satisfying to those who like to think that Wilde, nearly 40 when the couple met, was simply bewitched. But snaring a gorgeous young aristocrat such as Douglas also appealed deeply to the social climber in Wilde, as the middle-class, Canadian Ross did not.

And one can only be grateful that Ross, who devoted the remainder of his life to redeeming Wilde's memory after the playwright's death in 1900, did not live to see himself portrayed as a humorless prig in The Judas Kiss. Tolar does a manful job with the play's most thankless role--Hare's Ross is a quasi-closeted, rigid man with all the dash of a small-town accountant. This is the guy who first seduced a married, famous Oscar Wilde? Ross was, in fact, a slight, witty, somewhat girlish youngster of considerable sexual experience who saw the yearning in Wilde and became determined to satisfy it, but Hare has turned him into a sort of cardboard "sensible friend" purely for the contrast he presents to Douglas.

Of the four minor characters in The Judas Kiss, Jeff Baker stands out as Sandy Moffatt, the Scots manager of the Cadogan Hotel in London, where Wilde drinks and dithers in Act 1 prior to his arrest. Refusing a handsome tip, Moffatt tells Wilde to keep the money, for he will need it if he flees to France to avoid trial. Expressing his gratitude to Wilde for the kindness and courtesy he's shown the hotel staff, Moffatt causes the playwright to break down in tears. And for that one moment, The Judas Kiss is about real human feeling, rather than settling a century-old score.

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