Theater review: "The Judas Kiss"

For someone who was so renowned for his keen observation and caustic wit, apparently Oscar Wilde was something of a dullard in love.

David Hare’s play “The Judas Kiss” depicts the scandalous and sad downfall of the Irish-born novelist (“The Picture of Dorian Gray”) and playwright (“The Importance of Being Earnest”). Despite being married with children, Wilde lived rather indiscriminately as a gay man in Victorian-era London, until a highly publicized 1895 trial on obscenity charges (“gross indecency”) essentially ended his career and ruined his life. After serving a harsh two-year prison sentence, he spent the rest of his years in lonely exile.

The primary object of Wilde’s desire – and the primary cause of his disgrace – was Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, a young aristocrat whose powerful father helped lead the crusade against Wilde, attempting to clear his son’s “good name” by smearing Wilde’s reputation instead. By most accounts, Bosie was a fairly shameless cad. It’s arguable whether he ever truly cared for Wilde, or simply manipulated and exploited him as a means to defy his family or further his own career as a (lesser) poet.

In terms of establishing sufficient empathy for Wilde, the more pertinent question in director David Crowe’s Actor’s Express production of “The Judas Kiss” is: What does Oscar see in Bosie? Whether it’s a beloved soul mate, a promising protégé or just a favorite sex object is never very clear in the lackluster performance of Express artistic director Freddie Ashley as Wilde. Whatever the case may be, Ashley and Clifton Guterman (as Bosie) fail to generate enough chemistry between them to support it.

Apart from his relationship with Bosie, though, some of Wilde’s actions and motivations – either as written by Hare or as acted by Ashley – lack conviction and definition, making it that much harder to feel for him or even understand him. Given a chance to flee the country before the trial, he demurs, at first offering courageous notions about standing up for himself and against the societal prejudices of the day, but later he merely shrugs everything off with a “Why do anything?”

Bosie accuses Wilde of “affecting indifference,” a trait Ashley seems to take too literally in his impassive interpretation of the character. Except for the pronounced dark circles under his eyes in the second act set after his release from prison, there’s hardly any distinction between how Ashley plays Wilde, the broken man, and how he plays Wilde, the charismatic pundit, in the first act.

As a result, despite an excellent supporting performance by Christopher Corporandy as Robert Ross, a former lover and genuine friend of Wilde’s who stood by him to the bitter end, it begs another unfortunate question: What does Robbie see in this Oscar?


Theater review

“The Judas Kiss”

Grade: C+

Through June 11. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sunday (May 29); 5 p.m. Sunday (June 5). $25-$32. Actor’s Express, 887 W. Marietta St., Atlanta (King’s Plow Arts Center). 404-607-7469.

Bottom Line: Too restrained a lead performance to make a very illuminating character study.