Driving Wilde

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray has inspired numerous playwrights. Some choose a conventional dramatization. Others update the Victorian original or simply use the plot as a jumping-off point. In my theater-going years, I’ve seen four dramatic versions of Dorian Gray along with at least six attempts at musicalizing the property.

It should be no surprise to audiences familiar with her work that playwright Jacqueline Wright chooses to bend the story to her own purposes with her world premiere adaptation, Driving Wilde. In her introductory notes, Wright points out that she has borrowed from “De Profundis” and other writings by Wilde in creating the play. But, since most biographical dramatizations of Wilde’s life as well the adaptations of his work raid his treasure trove of quotes and aphorisms, the choice doesn’t truly surprise.

In fact, the most astonishing thing about Driving Wilde is how resilient Wilde’s framework remains. Even as the plot takes on more surreal aspects in the last half of the 90-minute play, Wright always returns to the foundation story. Granted, Wilde could never have imagined Sybil Vane transformed into Moon (Raven Moran), a sonnet-spouting surfer chick. But he’d certainly recognize the battle between Henry (David Wilcox) and Basil (Carl J. Johnson) over Dorian’s (Michael Kodi Farrow) soul.

Dorian’s portrait still grows old and shows the signs of his sins. But Wright chooses to make her Dorian an empty vessel. In the opening moments of the play, he survives a car crash and awakens from a coma with no memory. But, rather than being a true innocent, he already appears to be a disaffected rich boy from a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Henry doesn’t corrupt him, nor can Basil try to save him. This robs the story of its central conflict and keeps us from caring about a descent into debauchery which seems pre-ordained.

Bart DeLorenzo efficiently directs the script he’s given, but he can only find moments of connection with the audience as the dramatic spine is eliminated. However, he gets stellar results from his extraordinary tech team led by Ben Rock’s opulent projections, Brandon Baruch’s powerful lighting, and Martin Carillo’s savvy sound design.

Farrow makes an elegantly attractive Dorian, but he can’t provide more than the cipher of a character he’s given. Moran has much the same issue in her three roles. Wilcox and Johnson are fearless as Henry and Basil, along with a few other roles, and their over-the-top portrayals provide welcome comic relief. Michael Sturgis’ Young Man proves that one doesn’t need stage time to make a strong impression, and Stephen Simon ably handles Oscar Wilde and an offstage servant.

Driving Wilde remains too tied to the original story to be its own entity, and its textual meanderings never find a new dramatic focus.

Theatre of NOTE    August 22 – September 21, 2019    www.theatreofnote.com