The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only novel by the brilliant Irish playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde, is loaded with Wildean bon mots. It is one of the most quotable works I have ever read. And it has been adapted into dozens of productions for film, TV and stage.
The most memorable film is the 1945 version directed by Albert Lewin, starring Hurd Hatfield as Dorian. Many adapters place the story in contexts other than Victorian-era London. In 2014, the House Theatre produced a “promenade” version, Dorian, set in a contemporary art gallery.
The world premiere adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Paul Edwards is on stage now at City Lit Theater. Edwards sets it in 1970s and ‘80s New York in the early days of the AIDS crisis and the crack cocaine epidemic. The setting works but the script is flawed and the play is robbed of the Wilde glitter. This is especially clear in act two, where the action runs out of steam and the playwright resorts to extensive narration to move the action forward. Sybil Vane (Alyssa Thordarson), who dies in act one, is revived to wander in and out of the scene to report on events. (Yes, I know that’s a spoiler but I’m not apologizing.)
But the greatest miscue is in the way the Dorian portrait is treated. The portrait is one of a series of photographs of Dorian (Javier Ferreira) taken by Basil Hallward (Gabriel Fries), a photographer who is smitten with Dorian’s beauty. Dorian gazes upon his own likeness and wishes that his portrait would age, while he would remain young and handsome. He admires the enlarged version in his living room, and later moves it to a locked room upstairs.
If you remember the film or have seen Ivan Albright’s ghastly painting at the Art Institute, you know that the “picture of Dorian Gray” ages vividly and luridly, while Dorian himself remains youthful and fresh. In this production, the aging of the portrait is in Dorian’s mind, while the picture remains the same to us. Yes, this shows Dorian becoming increasingly unhinged. But it loses the dramatic power of the changing image as it becomes an evil record of Dorian’s drugs and sexcapades, eventually leading to disease.
Director Andrea J. Dymond does her best with this material but she is not able to bring the casting and performances up to City Lit standards. Scott Olson, playing Dorian’s hedonist friend, Henry (Harry) Wotton, provides the best performance. He speaks in the voice of Oscar Wilde, and, of course, gets all the good lines. “Beauty is more important than genius.” And “there’s only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s not being talked about.” And meeting with Dorian 14 years after the initial portrait, “Dorian, what is your secret to youth and beauty? To get back my youth, I would do anything—except exercise.”
The other cast members—Ferreira, Fries, Thordarson, Stephen Rosenberger as Dorian’s valet, and Ryan Leonard as Sybil’s Vietnam vet brother—are adequate but not memorable.
The set design is handled by Ray Toler with lighting by Liz Cooper and costumes by Patricia Roeder. The photography of Dorian is by Steve Graue.
The Picture of Dorian Gray continues at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr at the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, through April 15. Tickets are $32 (some discounts available) for performances Friday-Sunday and on two Mondays, April 2 and 9.