For someone who died 111 years ago, penniless and exiled, Oscar Wilde‘s having a pretty grand season in New York theater.
His timeless comedy, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is on Broadway and another play, “My Scandalous Life,” focusing on his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, is off-Broadway, at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
This play, by Thomas Kilroy, is for those who are such stalwart fans they need to know everything about Wilde. A fascinating man, a talented, smart, acerbic wit, Wilde pretty much forced the British government’s hand into convicting him for homosexuality.
Today this may sound strange to an American audience, but Douglas’ father had accused Wilde of corrupting his then-21-year-old son. Wilde later sued the elder Douglas for libel, lost and did two years of hard labor in prison.
In the play, a 75-year-old Douglas, known as “Bosie,” reflects on his younger days with the man he truly loved. Des Keogh is perfect in this slight play. He’s on stage alone for most of it, and at turns is wistful, furious and embarrassed but always elegant, patrician and literate.
He talks to the audience from a tiny stage, cleverly set as a Victorian parlor in his wife’s home, as she dies upstairs.He tells the small audience his story, which is occasionally punctuated by Eileen, the maid.
The problem is even for those who consider themselves knowledgeable about Wilde’s life and remain interested in him (I’m among the legion), this play assumes far too much knowledge without explanation.
Bosie talks about how well he and his wife got along, what good taste she had and how she accepted him after his scandalous affair had been made public.
“She said she always liked fairies, they always smelled so washed,” he says.
And there are a few good lines, which there certainly should be in a play about the master of good lines. Bosie describes Eileen the blowsy, nosy maid as “very sensitive, you know, beneath that agricultural exterior.”
Keogh proves what a fine actor he is when he talks about when Wilde died and how he traveled to Paris to pay for the burial. He fairly crumples with grief as those 45-year-old memories flood him.
Yet as strong an actor as he is, as on-point as Fiana Toibin as Eileen is, and as terribly earnest as this play is, it remains unimportant.