Playwright Adapted by Paul Edwards, from the novel by Oscar Wilde
At: City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: 773-293-3682, CityLit.org; $12-$32. Runs through: April 15
Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray seems like a natural fit for transplant from the 1890s to the 1970s and '80s. Its tale of infinite debauchery and the harrowing price hedonism eventually demands is well-suited to the glorious excess of the era that ushered in the AIDs pandemic.
The story one of the iconic gay author's very best: As Dorian's closeted portrait decays with his every act of cruelty, deception and depravity, Dorian himself remains the picture of glorious, Adonis-like youth.
In moving Dorian's story forward some 80 years, adaptor Paul Edwards has a fabulous idea. It's easy to imagine Dorian immersing himself in pansexual adventures of a seemingly eternal party, snorting coke in VIP lounge at Studio 54 or swallowing poppers and hooking up in the bathrooms of Berlin.
But while the premise is excellent in City Lit's production, the execution needs work.
There are three primary problems here. First, Edwards' adaptation needs editing. It sags where it should be drum-tight, meandering where laser precision is called for. Second, the cast's pacing is sluggish throughout. Wilde's signature, stinging repartee doesn't trip off the tongue here so much as it droops off, slowly languishing.
Finally, there 's the titular piece of art. Edwards' concept for the magically aging painting is intriguing, but it is not dramatically satisfying. The painting is supposed to be a representation of every grotesque horror humankind can commita monstrous, symbolic manifestation of evil. In Edwards' adaption, the portrait is no such thing. Think "Jaws" only you never get to actually see the shark.
Dymond's cast attacks Wilde's text with earnestness if not authenticity. There's a labored, scripted feel to the production. Theater's greatest illusionthat what happens onstage is spontaneous and of the momentis absent. That's unfortunate, because Wilde is at his epigrammatic best with The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The witticisms are like diamond-studded stilettos, lethal and witty Here, their light is muted, their edge blunted.
Moreover, Edwards' adaption often feels generic rather than firmly rooted in the 1970s. You need more than solid costume design ( nice work by Peggy Roeder ) and a retro-bar cart to evoke the days of the Limelight, crack, Gordon Gekko and Ronald Ronald Reagan.
Edwards has worked some clever bits into the text: One character's last words are the same as Wilde's last words. The infamously corrupting "yellow book" is hollowed hiding place for heroin. One of the supporting roles is a View Nam vet dealing with PTSD.
At the corrosive heart of "Dorian" is the title character ( Javier Ferreira ), who we meet as he's posing for his friend and photographer Basil Hallward ( Gabriel Fries ).
Edwards has added a narrator to the proceedings, ( Alyssa Thordarson ), resurrecting one of Dorian's early casualties and having her deliver great swaths of languorous, an element that does the pacing no favors. Dorian should fascinate and repulse. At City Lit, it does neither despite the potential inherent to a marvelous concept.